Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The World of Henry Cowell at Bard Music West, Concert 1

A remarkable new musical festival, Bard Music West, began in San Francisco last year and had its second outing last weekend. Co-founded by two recent graduates of the New York liberal arts Bard College, cellist Laura Gaynon and pianist Allegra Chapman (above) are following the template of the annual summer Bard Music Festival which focuses on a single composer and their world: colleagues, influences, and cultural milieu. This year's West Coast festival, held at the minimalist, acoustically lively Noe Valley Ministry church, was dedicated to the World of Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a wonderful choice as he was a Bay Area local who can plausibly be called the most important and influential American composer that most people have never heard of.

The opening performer was Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill who has been one of Cowell's most passionate, informed advocates. She played High Color, which Cowell wrote in 1938 while serving four years of a 15-year sentence in San Quentin prison for being a homosexual who naively confessed it to the Redwood City police. In fact, the last time I heard High Color was when Sarah played it at a 2014 concert held in San Quentin prison featuring music that the composer had written while incarcerated.

This was followed by the local Volti acapella chorus (including the two basses above, Peter Dennis and Sidney Chen) singing a set of American church pieces by William Billings (1746-1800), William Walker (1809-75), and Cowell himself. The finale was Modern Musick, a funny 1781 piece by Billings that begins:
We are met for a Concert of modern invention;
To tickle the Ear is our present intention.
and ends:
And now we address you as Friends to the Cause;
Performers are modest and write their own Laws
Altho' we are sanguine and clap at the Bars,
'Tis the Part of the Hearers to clap their Applause
and the audience happily did so.

This was followed by the 1911 Charles Ives Piano Trio, which may rival his Fourth Symphony in complexity with its mashups of popular tunes piled on top of each other combined with stretches of mysterious, soulful beauty. Violinist Luosha Fang, pianist Allegra Chapman, and cellist Laura Gaynon were sensationally good and I can't imagine a better performance.

After intermission, Sarah Cahill returned to play the music of friends, students, and colleagues of Cowell, starting with two of Johanna Breyer's knotty 1934 pieces from Gebrauchs-Musik. This was followed by Bacchanale, a fun and nutty proto-minimalist prepared piano piece from 1940 by John Cage, and Dane Rudhyar's (1895-1985) Scriabin-like Stars from 1924 back on the grand piano. She finished with the wild, descriptive 1913 Suicide in an Airplane by the then-18-year-old Leo Ornstein who managed to live until he was 107. ("Lots of sleep and a big breakfast" were his keys to longevity according to Sarah who met him in his final years.)

The big surprise of the concert for me were the 1930 Three Chants for Women's Chorus by Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). Crawford is mostly famous for being the mother of folk singer Pete Seeger and wife of musicologist Charles Seeger who started the UC Berkeley Music Department and mentored the penniless Henry Cowell as a teenager. Crawford was also a daring modernist composer herself who unfortunately did not write enough because of marriage, motherhood and an early death. The three chants are titled To an Unkind God, To an Angel, and To a Kind God, and the text is a made-up language of sounds, rather like Meredith Monk would create 40 years later. Music Director Robert Geary above conducted the difficult music, with an occasional soloist stepping forward out of the sonic cloud. Shauna Falihee above was the exquisite soprano soloist in To an Angel, and the equally fine soprano Amy Foote and alto Celeste Winant shone in the Unkind/Kind God movements.

The To a Kind God chant was so dense, luminous and strange that it evoked the micropolyphony music of Ligeti 30 years before he started writing in that style. (Bard Music West's first festival, by the way, was devoted to the world of Ligeti.)

This was followed by violist Jessica Chang and pianist Allegra Chapman performing Cowell's 1947 Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 7, which featured Cowell's characteristic mixture of modernism and tuneful classicism.

The long evening ended with an art song set by soprano Sara LeMesh, singing music by Carl Ruggles, William Grant Still, Otto Luening and four of the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson by Aaron Copland. By this time, I was feeling musically overstuffed, not to mention that I don't really enjoy art songs/chansons/lieder all that much. However, according to all my concert companions, it was a beautiful set, nicely sung. Stay tuned for an account of the second festival concert, which was just as interesting as the first.

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