Monday, January 22, 2018

Stimulating New Music with SFCMP

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players offered an unusually varied, interesting concert last Friday at the SF Conservatory of Music. It started with the powerhouse duo of guitarist David Tanenbaum and violinist Roy Malan playing Twist, a 2014 piece by Vivian Fung (pictured below).

The combination of guitar and violin is unusual enough that I can't recall ever hearing of a piece for that duo before, but the 15-minute, three-movement work was fascinating, with the instruments sometimes harmonizing together and at other times existing in opposition. If you would like to hear the work, click here for a YouTube performance.

This was followed by a performance from pianist Kate Campbell of four Etudes (2009) by jazz clarinetist and composer Don Byron that each started off with a simple rhythmic pattern that then explodes and blossoms in all directions. They were interesting and short enough I wish she had played all seven. (Click here for Lisa Moore playing Etude #1 and Etude #2.) This was followed by the 2010 Under the Rug, a short piece from Ryan Brown (pictured below) which featured percussionist Nick Woodbury and harpist Karen Gottlieb above, with Clio Tilton on viola.

According to the program notes, the piece was a response to Bjork's album Vespertine, but it seemed more reminiscent in its beautiful, transparent use of harp, viola and percussion of the late California composer Lou Harrison. To hear a performance on Brown's website, click here.

Then the new, incoming SFCMP Artistic Director Eric Dudley joined contemporary music legend Meredith Monk for an onstage interview. She explained a bit of her background studying at Sarah Lawrence in the 1960s where she had her Eureka moment, realizing that vocals could be treated as a purely musical instrument rather than a narrative voice.

She described the origins of the two pieces on the evening's program and mentioned that though her music looks easy on a written score, they are actually extremely difficult to perform effectively and require memorization "so they are absorbed into the body." There was a wonderful moment of self-deprecating humor when she described an upcoming major project as "beautiful" and then laughed, "Wait, you can't say your own work is beautiful, my next major project..." Finally, after mentioning how delighted she was at the quality of the music so far ("a new music concert, hurray!"), she gave a moving testimonial to her luck at being a lifelong working artist into her 70s.

Monk had spent the day before at the SF Conservatory giving master classes and rehearsing two students, mezzo-soprano Marina Davis and soprano Courtney McPhail (above left) in the 1988 Cave Song from her film Book of Days. It seems that the piece had not been memorized which caused a bit of drama, but after two hours, the work had been absorbed by the two singers and they came through with a beautiful performance accompanied by harpist Karen Gottlieb.

This was followed by Ellis Island, a short work for two pianos "blending into one big piano," as Monk described it, with Kate Campbell and Conservatory student Taylor Chan performing.

After intermission, a large ensemble augmented by a few Conservatory students tackled Frederic Rzewski's 1969 experiment in the joys of musical disintegration, Les Moutons de Panurge where a simple tune, through the addition and subtraction of its 65 notes becomes a cacophonous whirlwind. One of Rzewski's instructions is as follows: "In the melody...never stop or falter, always play loud. Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold." The performance was a lot of fun for both players and the audience. (Click here for a YouTube performance by Taller Atlántico Contemporáneo TAC.)

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Cobra, John Zorn's 1984 improvisatory "game" piece which was probably enjoyable to participate in, but was a long, dull slog for most in the audience, despite the great musicians onstage being led by the legendary percussionist William Winant.

Even the enjoyable drumming of Nick Woodbury above couldn't sustain interest and I snuck out after about ten minutes. It was sort of a crappy way to end the concert because all the other music was so compelling.

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