Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Modern Harpsichord Music with Elevate Ensemble

Last Saturday evening at the SOMArts Cultural Center, the Elevate Ensemble presented a successful, thrilling concert of contemporary music for that ancient instrument, the harpsichord. What was most amazing is that the nearly full house was predominantly young people in their 20s and 30s rather than the usual 60s and 70s demographic seen at most classical music concerts.

The two-year-old group was started by Artistic Director Chad Goodman above, and the formula has been to present chamber music concerts with food and drink at lovely homes around San Francisco. In other words, chamber music performed in actual chambers, designed as a social gathering for young techies who have migrated into town over the last five years. Goodman is also a crack young conductor as demonstrated all evening.

The first piece was a world premiere by Nicolas Benavides above, a six-movement work called The Color Festivals for string quartet and harpsichord, based on stories from Told by the Sandman, a 1916 children's fairytale book that Benevides grew up with. "In these stories, the morals are quirky and the witches are never bad, but are always providing something useful like magic gloves to help out."

Though I have bumped into Benavides at a number of new music events, this was his first composition I've heard, and it was an enormous relief to discover that he's a very good composer. He mentioned that the model for this piece was Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, but there were also hints of Stravinsky neoclassicism and a voice completely his own. The music was simultaneously simple and rich sounding, a tricky balancing act, filled with emotion and demonstrating remarkable compositional skills. Giving a bright, committed performance were violinists Yuri Kye and Asuka Yanai, cellist Gabrel Beistline, and violist Christina Simpson above, playing off harpsichord virtuoso Derek Tam below, who was magnificent all evening long.

The harpsichord was devised in the 16th century and used by Renaissance and Baroque composers until it was supplanted in the late 18th century by the piano. For some people, the sound of the harpsichord is like fingernails on a chalkboard, but I've always enjoyed the instrument, and love some of the music composed for it over the last century by composers ranging from Poulenc to Xenakis.

The second piece on the program was another world premiere, Fera Machina, by composer Benjamin Sabey above who is a newly appointed music professor at SF State. He gave a speech warning people to listen with an open mind and ears because it was going to be strange, modern music, but he did so in a sincere, non-condescending manner for classical newbies. The caution wasn't really necessary because the piece for harpsichord and string quartet was fun, energetic, wild and varied, and for once it was exactly the right length.

After intermission, there was a reworked composition by Danny Clay (above, with Tam on harpsichord) called La folia, which didn't make much of an impression until its final, chugging movement.

The final offering was Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's 1926 Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello, one of my favorite pieces of music which I have never had the opportunity to hear live. (Pictured above is flautist Gina Gulyas, oboist, Sydne Sullivan, clarinetist Matthew Boyles with conductor Goodman.) It was a wonderful performance of an unjustly obscure masterpiece.

If you would like to hear this concert, it is being repeated this Friday, March 4th at 6PM at the Presidio Officers' Club, and admission is free. I recommend it highly, and they probably have more old-fashioned bathroom arrangements than SOMArts which has decided to go full-on, co-ed college dorm.

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