Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Music Gathering Day 2: Bay Area

My second evening at the New Music Gathering last weekend at the SF Conservatory of Music started with one of the more astonishing musical stunts I have ever witnessed. In a tiny recital room at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, over the course of 90 minutes, the Japanese pianist Taka Kigawa played the entire piano works written by Pierre Boulez, the arch modernist post-WWII composer. Kigawa did this from memory, without a score, which is is a feat of memorization akin to reciting Pi to the 10,000th decimal point, with a memorized dynamic for each number besides.

I was a lightweight, and lasted 30 minutes through Kigewa's performance because a shower and dinner after a day of work beckoned before attending the main, three-hour concert later that evening. The Brooklyn organizers (Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks, not pictured Daniel Felsenfeld) programmed East Coast composers and performers on Day 1 of of the New Music Gathering, while Friday was devoted to the Bay Area.

The concert began with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble being represented by composer/violist Kurt Rohde above playing his ...maestoso...misterioso... with violinist Anna Pressler. The performance of this inventive, amusing piece for violin, viola, gongs, vocals, toy instruments and electronics went much better than at its premiere a couple of years ago, possibly because Sam Nichols on electronics was taking care of the technical details.

Volti, the San Francisco based acapella chorus devoted to contemporary music, offered a set of four selections from composers Huck Hodge, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark Winges, and Gabriela Lena Frank. It could just be my lack of discrimination, but they all started sounding the same except for Frank's Chicanophobia! which bordered on Latino minstrelsy.

Conductor and Volti Artistic Director Robert Geary gave a speech after Resident Composer Mark Winges' selection, which was the first movement from Pandora's Gift, a 30-minute work for Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir. Geary wanted the audience to know that children were perfectly capable of learning complex modern music, and that the composers in attendance should be sure to write for them.

The chorus was followed by the chamber ensemble Wild Rumpus with the marvelous soprano Vanessa Langer above vocalising through the eight short movements of Lee Weisert's subtle, fascinating Minutiae which the ensemble commissioned.

The Minutiae movements were bisected by the world premiere of Joshua Carro's Spectral Fields in Time, which was unfortunate because it was abrasively loud in context with the Weisert and Artistic Director Dan VanHassel's electric guitar solos drowned out the other fine musicians onstage, including percussionist Mckenzie Camp above and pianist Margaret Halbig, bass clarinetist Sophie Huet, trombonist Weston Olencki and double bassist Eugene Theriault.

The headliner for the evening, Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, offered an 80th birthday concert for legendary California composer Terry Riley, who was in attendance. In a characteristically gracious introduction, Sarah pointed out that "Terry Riley concerts always seem to have lots of twenty-somethings in attendance, there's something in his music that speaks to them," and to that end Sarah has commissioned a number of young composers to write birthday music for a series of recitals she will be performing this year, including at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on January 29th.

After playing the fiercely demanding 1960s era Keyboard Studies by Terry Riley, Sarah introduced Poppy Infinite by the composer's son, the guitarist/composer Gyan Riley. It was an interesting piece that roamed all over stylistically. This was followed by Shade Studies from Samuel Carl Adams above, a delicate tribute that may have been my favorite piece of the evening. Every other composition at The New Music Gathering seemed to feature live acoustic instruments augmented with electronics, but this was the subtlest example of that synthesis imaginable, with the piano being echoed softly by electronics within the instrument. Dylan Mattingly is composing an autobiographical YEAR for the occasion, and Sarah played an excerpt from January and February that was good enough that it made me want to hear the whole work.

The commissions weren't all by young pups. The 82-year-old Pauline Oliveros contributed the conceptual A Trilling Piece for Terry where Sarah and the 25-year-old composer Danny Clay explored the entire piano. Oliveros begins her instructions with: "A Trill is an alternation between single to multiple pitches and/or sounds. The alternation may vary from very slow to as rapid as possible with a wide range of tempi between two or more fingers of one hand, or in both hands simultaneously or between both hands. Different mallets, sticks and an electric vibrator could be used on the strings, soundboard and wood as well."

This was followed by a new transcription by Toon Vanderhorst of The Philosopher's Hand which is the fourth movement from Requiem for Adam, written in 1998 for David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet after his 16-year-old son suddenly died of a blood clot while hiking with his family on Mount Diablo. The final piece was a change in mood with the charming, three-movement Circle Songs by Danny Clay above, who noted that he had never met Terry Riley before this moment, and that they shared the same birthday, "so there's that."

At the end of the concert, Riley was asked by Sarah to come onstage where he took a bow with the young composers. In a Facebook post, organizer Lainie Fefferman confessed that she had all kinds of brilliant remarks saved up to offer Riley, her longtime musical hero, when she joined him onstage, but instead simply burst into tears. "And not the pretty kind of crying either," she noted. It was a nice ending to an emotional evening for everyone who had been influenced by Riley over the years.

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