An unusually interesting concert was presented on Sunday afternoon, February 24th by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chamber Orchestra. With almost 60 musicians filling the stage, it felt more like a full symphony ensemble than a "chamber" group, and the student players were superb. Plus, it was free.
What made the concert different was performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 with interpolated serial music by Webern and Dallapiccola between its four movements. This conglomeration was then bookended by a pair of contemporary works by Pamela Z and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The fractured presentation was the brainchild of conductor and genius percussionist Steven Schick above, and the 75-minute concert was given without pause or applause between numbers.
Composer and vocalist Pamela Z has been experimenting with voice and layered sampling techniques on a laptop for decades, and Schick had commissioned her to write an introduction to Beethoven's Symphony #1 using Ludwig's despairing letter to his brothers about hearing loss. In the program notes, she writes that though the tone of the music is "dolorous and lamenting," she confesses that "I also couldn't resist the instinct to do something playful — something related to my penchant for sampling, layering, looping, and fragmentation. I decided to use the orchestra as a big, living, sample playback device by creating their phrases and motifs from chopped-up, granulated, and drastically stretched fragments of the first moment of Symphony No. 1."
After a short speech from the stage by Schick, Pamela Z and her laptop came out and the piece began, quite beautifully with the whole orchestra playing a snatch of Beethoven while Pamela Z began singing an ethereal "Ahhhhhh......"
About ten seconds into that "Ahhh...." strobe lights started flashing around the stage and a fire alarm sounded.
More than one person in the audience thought it might be an intentionally theatrical part of the piece, but everyone was hustled out on to Oak Street, where a woman with a megaphone directed us to wait in one particular parking lot.
Most people sensibly ignored her instructions.
We soon returned to the concert hall, revivified by the faux emergency, and Pamela Z's Helligenstadt Lament was fun, particlarly in the way she used the large orchestra as a sampler throughout. The coup de theatre was when she stopped singing, closed the laptop, walked into the audience while the orchestra started the first movement for real without an audible segue.
The ten-minute, twelve-tone Webern Symphony arrived between Beethoven movements one and two, while Luigi Dallapiccola's Piccola musica notturna was interpolated between two and three-four. In the program notes, Schick tried to articulate a subtext for his program, involving politics and 12-tone music being all about equality among every note, and none of it was very convincing, but it was great hearing unfamiliar, rarely performed music live by talented young musicians.
aequillibria, the final piece, by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottis was an exquisite, trancey stormscape for eleven instruments, and my favorite piece of music on the program. The unwitting theme of the concert for me was very male (Beethoven, 12-toners) musical energy countered and enfolded by female musical energy, not just in terms of actual gender but in musical effects.