Last Monday’s concert by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players left me in a daze. In less than two hours, I had a deeper understanding of five important composers: Michael Jarrell, Oscar Bianchi, Helmut Lachenmann, Matthias Pintscher, and Brian Ferneyhough. More importantly, I have come to value the musicians of the ensemble more than ever before. No question, a concert like this is a challenge. But it’s priceless and a thrill. Talk to people around you, and you’ll realize just how much there is to say. What follows are just some thoughts on each performance and each composer. They are very critical, but only because this is what I find missing these days.
Michael Jarrell shines as a large-ensemble composer. His gestures, though effectively conveyed in . . . more leaves. . . , is derived from his Viola Concerto. The electronics too often sounded like an orchestrational band-aid for an ensemble that was clearly too small. That, combined with a lack of amplification of the ensemble and a sound engineer, left me with an impression that this music lies in a strange world in between the live experience and the recording. Nanci Severance, the violist, played very well. I hadn’t heard her in a solistic context, and I was very encouraged.
Oscar Bianchi’s Zaffiro was a much more inspired piece. The writing was clearly a result of a profound understanding of how each instrument works, and an inherently dramatic intent. While Jarrell quickly defaulted to trills as a sort of attempt at creating an unnecessarily large sound, Zaffiro began and continued with a frailty best embodied between Nanci’s soft, brittle lines- followed by silence. The overall form wasn’t notable except for just how sensitive the musical pacing was in regard to arriving at multiple climactic moments. Oscar’s music often goes through a transformation of attention from individual details in the beginning towards social explorations of musical material within the ensemble (cooperation/conflct); this is inherently dramatic, and it was clearly understood well by the players and conductor.
Helmut Lachenmann’s Trio Fluido is a historical gem in that, throughout the listening experience, one is struck by an incredible array of moments that could be the entire subject- or territory- for later works, such as Allegro Sostenuto, Gran Torso, or even percussive moments from his opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (sticks on marimbas). While I don’t personally find much value in such a judgement, I must say that this piece doesn’t achieve the same intense, introspective moments for just this reason: Lachenmann discovered later on just how much lies within the relationship between two singular events. This is why he became such an incredible composer. In regard to the interpretation, I must say that it was clouded by what seemed to be an almost schizophrenic relationship between Graeme and Willy. Only in this piece was I left wondering if the players were somewhat limited in their interpretation because of time constraints.
Matthias Pintscher’s nemeton, frankly was the most perplexing work I heard in a long time, by the fact that almost everyone loved it! Honestly, I have little to say about the piece except snootish composer remarks (1: Loud chimes does not a form make, 2: No matter how many dazzling, well-written, virtuosic phrases one writes, it isn’t a piece, 3: if you want a heightened interpretation from a musician, don’t bog them down with so much else to do). Regardless, this piece was the crowd pleaser. Chris Froh clearly worked so hard to find the piece that truly did not exist. Only through his sheer determination and unrivaled musicality did he manage to create an experience that was truly pleasing to most non-composers in the audience. And that’s fine. This is part of a larger discussion.
Brian Ferneyhough’s Flurries was unremarkable in its virtuosity, and in need more than any other piece for a second hearing. Only then would I have found what so many of the musicians said was an incredible piece. A pity that this was not also played during the contemporary insights concert to give the public a chance. I must say that here I was most impressed by Brad Lubman’s command of the ensemble as well as one incredible horn player: Kevin Rivard. Finally, I couldn’t help but feel that I would much more prefer to hear works by one of Brian’s very gifted students. Perhaps, say, Jason Federmeyer or Christopher Moore.
There is much to talk about with this concert. I want to know what value people place on the chance of hearing pieces of music that they would never otherwise have a chance to hear live; from composers they seldom hear at a symphony concert; played by musicians who rarely get afforded the opportunity to spend so much time interpreting new works, and a guest conductor who should come to the bay area more often. All in all, between sfsound, earplay, and sfcmp, last weekend was a great weekend for new music in the bay area.