Brett Dean – Photo by Mark Coulson

SFCMP Zone 5: in which discussing a plan leads to some confusion

Artistic director Steven Schick and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) concluded their fortieth season with a program featuring a broad mix of new music. Everything from pure electronics to solo viola was represented. One is struck by both the diversity of programming and the highly polished performance presented by SFCMP. Unfortunately I missed the pre-concert discussion, but in catching the tail end of it I noticed that all the composers represented on the program were present, and they were discussing their music and new music in general with Schick.

Aaron Gervais’s piece Culture No. 1 began with a short sample played by pianist Karen Rosenak on a laptop. The less-than-5-seconds clip was the inspiration for the following section of music. This “call and response” between short audio clips and music based around and inspired by them continued throughout the piece a total of five times. Each of the samples, according to the program note, was found “left over” from other projects on the composer’s hard drive. The piece was about 9 minutes long, and is, to the best of my knowledge and a recent google search, the only piece currently in the repertoire for piano and harp. Through delicate amplification of Karen Gottlieb’s harp, the balance was worked out quite satisfactorily.

Violist Nancy Severance performed Australian composer Brett Dean’s Intimate Decisions (1996), which was ten minutes of beautiful viola writing (not to mention playing!). The title comes from one of Dean’s wife’s paintings, and the character of the piece holds true to Dean’s experience writing for a solo stringed instrument, which his program note compares to writing a personal letter or having an intense discussion with a friend. Dean himself is a professional violist, and premiered the work himself even though it was commissioned by his colleague Walter Küssner. Perhaps because of the composer’s intimate knowledge of the instrument he was writing for, Intimate Decisions hold true to the title: the solo viola at times seemed to have a quite conversation with itself.

Brett Dean - Photo by Mark Coulson

Brett Dean – Photo by Mark Coulson

Mark Applebaum’s piece Pre-Composition began with what sounded like somebody on stage testing a mic out to see if it is on, perhaps in preparation for a verbal introduction to the piece that was to follow. Shortly after, the audience realized that this was no introduction, and the piece was already being performed. Simultaneously an 8-track tape piece built from samples of spoken words and an examination of the composer’s creative process, Pre-Composition is a conversation between the composer and several of his selves. One self is particularly interested in making the electronics more complex, suggesting mono, a flange, and various other things. Another self is the “spiritual” self, and keeps making “deep” comments about the goings-on amongst the other “selves.” The audience laughed through the whole piece, which was simultaneously a brilliant comedy sketch and an insightful piece on the composer’s creative process.

Also programmed was Nathan Davis’ The Bright and Hollow Sky for flute/alto flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet/piccolo trumpet, steel string acoustic guitar, and percussion. I read the program note before the performance, and I must say the piece was quite surprising because it was not quite what I had expected. I kept waiting for the trumpet’s predicted “explosion into an ecstasy” that I must have missed somehow. The performance was stellar, although there were a couple tense moments towards the end where it was revealed that yes, you can hear when a trumpeter coughs through their instrument. Beginning the second half of the program was Lou Harrison’s wonderful work for guitar and percussion, Serenade (1978). While I know the piece to be a wonderful work, it seemed that David Tannenbaum was perhaps having an off day. The performance was less than technically precise, although Tannenbaum managed to capture the spirit of Harrison’s open harmonies.

Mark Applebaum

The world premiere of Edmund Campion’s new commission Small Wonder (The Butterfly Effect) brought the concert to a brilliant close. The orchestration (two violins, two clarinets, two percussionists, string bass) fell into the shape of a butterfly. The bass in center stage formed the thorax along with the plugged-in conductor (click track), while the other instruments were arranged symmetrically to form the antiphonal “wings” fluttering around this central body. The materials used to create the piece were taken from a computer program designed by the composer to generate random yet ordered sets of percussive materials. This flirtation with chaos played a central role in the composition, and the setting of ordered materials against the disordered electronics had a wonderful effect. I loved the piece, and the performance was secure as well. The rhythmic patterns (judging by what I could observe/hear) were very complex, and I commend the ensemble for a solid interpretation of this new piece.

In a way, the order of the program sums up the subtitle for the concert: in which discussion of a piece (Applebaum and Dean) leads to some confusion (Campion). I look forward very much to SFCMP’s coming season, announced at tonight’s concert: they will be playing 4 hours and 33 minutes of music by Cage in celebration of his centennial, plus music by a diverse crowd of composers and a Reich program at the San Francisco Conservatory.

Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist