Friday, March 20, 2015

Last Waltz for BluePrint Concerts at the Conservatory

For 15 years, the conductor Nicole Paiement above has been presenting concerts of contemporary music with the finest student musicians in a series called BluePrint at the San Francisco Conservatory. Last Saturday, in a completely unexpected announcement, she announced that this was to be the last one.

At least she went out with a good concert. It started with a reworked Gavotte for Elly by Kyle Hovatter, whose original version had been premiered at an earlier BluePrint concert dedicated to longtime composition teacher Elinor Armer (click here for an account).

Next up was the world premiere of Robin Estrada's Hoefer Prize winning Pagihip at Pagtaktak, a mingling of northern Filipino bamboo instruments and Western wind instruments that was surprisingly subtle given the instrumentation, evoking the plant and animal life of a jungle from an almost insect level. The piece wasn't my cup of tea, but all my smart companions loved it so the fault was obviously mine.

The Hoefer Prize goes each year to a Conservatory alumni who is a young composer, and one of the annual highlights of the BluePrint concert series has been the premiere performances of those works. In 2012, it was Neil Romick's Anosmia about a man losing his sense of smell. In 2013 they performed Ian Dicke's multimedia Grand Central, and 2014 brought Ryan Brown's theatrical oratorio, The Exact Location of the Soul. That's a remarkable track record, and it's a question if that success will endure without Paiement's genius for getting the most out of both modern scores and student ensembles.

After intermission, bassoonist Justin Cummings above, who has played with the New Music Ensemble for the last four years, was the soloist for Stephen Paulson's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. Paulson, a Conservatory professor, is the principal bassoonist at the San Francisco Symphony and this 1968 concerto was the only music other than a few songs that he ever composed. It wasn't very interesting except for the bassoon part, which Justin sailed through with brilliant aplomb.

The final piece on the program brought two of my favorite musicians in the entire world together for the first time. Sarah Cahill was the piano soloist while Nicole Paiement conducted the New Music Ensemble in Olivier Messiaen's 1956 Oiseaux exotiques, and it was a crisp, smashingly good peformance by all. A piano concerto mashed into an examination of the soundscape of "exotic" birds from Asia and the Americas, it's probably a good starter piece for Messiaen appreciation because it's both short and literally brilliant.

After the concert, I asked Nicole if the demise of BluePrint was because she was finally becoming a famous conductor (she's just been appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Opera among other worldwide invitations) and she professed that it wasn't the case. She was still very much a part of the SF Conservatory.

From what I could make out, this was more a case of academic politics than anything else, which is egregiously dumb on the Conservatory's part. Half the genius new music instrumentalists who populate the Bay Area right now, such as Weston Olencki above, have gone through Paiement's exacting, exhausting, exciting tutelage in the New Music Ensemble. And for audiences, it was probably one of the best contemporary music series in the world, although too few people knew about it. Bring back BluePrint!

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