The composer and teacher Elinor Armer above was born in Oakland on October 6, 1939, which means she turned 75 this week.
To mark the occasion, conductor Nicole Paiement and her Blue Print ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music offered a birthday concert last Saturday that was filled with world premieres by former students of Elly. I had never heard of Ms. Armer, so I asked the pianist Sarah Cahill about her, and this was part of her reply:
"Armer has been living and working in the Bay Area for a long time, and her music is respected and admired, but it's never gotten the attention it really deserves. She studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, and collaborated with Ursula Le Guin on a big symphonic/choral work about an archipelago of islands, each with its own "use" and personality. She's beloved as a person and as a teacher. I took her musicianship class in 1977 at the SF Conservatory, and she was a brilliant teacher. She's funny and smart and very strong. Can you imagine being the only woman composer at SFCM, and one of the few in the Bay Area, for fifty-something years?"
It was Armer herself who set the ground rules for the commissions, that they be short pieces written for the same septet of instruments Stravinsky used in The Soldier's Tale, which are violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet/trumpet, trombone, and percussion. A few of the composers cheated, including Aleksandra Vrebalob above who used a larger contingent for her Armer Fanfare, which was an exciting, jubilant opening.
Armer's Ursula Le Guin collaboration is called Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts, and the composer Linda Holland above composed a beautiful, two-part, slow-fast riff on a few themes from that work.
Sasha Matson above wrote an impressionistic piece called Berkeley Hills...
...while the baby of the group, Kyle Hovatter (born in 1986), offered a charming Gavotte for Elly.
After intermission, Blue Print performed the only piece of "old" music on the program, Arnold Schonberg's Herzgewachse, for colorature soprano, celeste, harmonium and harp. Paradoxically, the song sounded like the most "modern" music of the evening, and it was spectacularly sung by Chelsea Hollow above.
The Elly Armer celebration continued with Ostinato for Elly by Barry Phillips above, Handsome not Pretty by Carolyn Yarnell, and Soldier to Soldier by Dan Becker below.
It's a testament to Armer's teaching skills at the SF Conservatory over the last 46 years that all the music was interesting and exciting to hear, with a slight nod to the female composers for creating my favorite pieces.
The concert ended with a new piece by the birthday girl herself, I left my heart, where she calls for, in her own words, a "ridiculously extravagant battery of percussion" in her homage to Rube Goldberg.
At a birthday party reception afterwards, to which the entire audience was invited, I wished Ms. Armer the best and told her how good I thought the concert was, and she replied, "I thought so TOO!" It's hard to imagine a better birthday present. Paiement and her talented student musicians deserve high praise for playing eight world premieres (with Schoenberg as an amuse bouche) so expertly and with such verve.