Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Musical Week 1: SFCMP Plays Gerard Grisey

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players opened their new season last Wednesday at the SF Conservatory of Music with a concert called Songscape. The evening started with death speaks, a 2012 David Lang companion piece to the little match girl chamber opera, with bits of chopped-up text from Death speaking in various Schubert songs set to Lang's usual high-pitched, droning minimalism. Soprano Alice Teyssier, above right, did a fine job intoning the texts, accompanied by Ray Malan on violin, Travis Andrews on electric guitar, and Kate Campbell on piano.

In a program note from the composer, he writes: "Art songs have been moving out of classical music in the last many years – indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert's sensibilities now lie, a better match for direct storytelling and intimate emotionality." I attended a performance of Lang's huge Civil War choreographed choral piece battle hymns three years ago with the SF Choral Society at the Kezar Pavilion, and it was a thrilling theatrical event. On the other hand, the little match girl struck me as overpraised and annoyingly precious, while death speaks should not worry any indie rockers. I wish there had been more moments like the finale, when guitarist Travis started singing along with soprano Alice. The piece finally came alive, so to speak.

This was followed by a welcome blast of energy, with David Wegehaupt on baritone sax and Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet playing Lee Hyla's 1992 We Speak Etruscan. I heard Wegehaupt play this before with Sophie Huet at a Wild Rumpus concert, but this was a better performance, partly because the music is literally so male that the nine minute duet sounds like the ultimate brass version of opera's Barihunks blog, except in this case it's more Barisaxstuds.

This was followed by an improvisation from composer Ken Ueno making weird noises through a megaphone and oboist Kyle Bruckmann slowly wandering from the back of the concert hall to the stage, echoing each other. It was fun until they ran out of ideas, one of the hazards of improv.

The major piece on the program was after intermission, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, which translates roughly as Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold. The French "spectral" composer Gerard Grisey wrote it in 1998, then suddenly crossed the threshold himself at age 52 from a brain aneurysm before he could hear the premiere. I first heard music by Grisey at a 2012 SF Symphony concert conducted by Susanna Mälkki, a section from Grisey's major work, Les Espaces acoustiques, which started off being boring until it recalibrated my hearing and became fascinating. The same was true for the 40-minute Quatre chants on Wednesday, offering a strange austerity that pulled one in slowly but was eventually completely absorbing.

The performance under Music Director Steven Schick was ambitious and magnificent, and Alice Teyssier gave a virtuoso performance, even after having sung continuously for 25 minutes in the David Lang piece. (Take care of that voice, Alice, it's a treasure.) The 17-piece chamber orchestra was an odd mixture of lots of woodwinds and brass, three string players, a harp, and three percussionists including local legend Willie Winant. The piece started and ended each of its four continuous moments with a rustling on drums that sounded like wind on a desert shifting the the sands of time.

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