glances backwards and forwards. . . .
Some of my favorite concerts feature artists performing their own music. San Francisco Performances had a wonderful one last year: an evening of music by poet and composer Lera Auerbach, with Auerbach herself on piano, joined in the first half by Alisa Weilerstein on cello and soprano Lina Tetriani. I was particularly interested in this concert since I had been bowled over by The Little Mermaid at San Francisco Ballet (Auerbach composed the score). Her music is lyrical and direct and strong. She also has the gift of being able to talk to audiences about her work in a way worth hearing. The first piece, Last Letter, joined all three performers. The text is from Marina Tsvetaeva's poem Novogodneye (New Year's Greeting). Poetry is notoriously what gets lost in translation and I think I hear this said more about Russian poetry than any other and about Tsvetaeva's poems in particular perhaps most of all. Music is another, and possibly more successful, way of translating poetry.
Auerbach started by telling us a bit about the poem and then reciting it in English (I would have liked to have heard it in Russian as well, but you can't have everything). Tsvetaeva wrote it shortly after the death of Rainer Maria Rilke, which was around the 1927 new year. The two poets (as well as Pasternak) had been engaged in an intense correspondence in the year or so before Rilke's death. Auerbach mentioned the suffering of the Russian poets, and because Russian and poetic suffering is such a monumental "thing" with us, a cultural trope, a number of us laughed knowingly, which didn't seem to faze Auerbach, but I was immediately ashamed of myself; who am I to chuckle at the tremendous historical sufferings I have been spared? Auerbach recommended the collected correspondence to us, and I procured a copy as pleasant penance for my smug Americanness. Anyway that piece was followed by the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 69, the second movement of which, the composer informed us, uses a theme associated with the Little Mermaid in the ballet. The second half of the concert was Auerbach solo, playing her Twenty-four Preludes for Piano, Opus 41. She has composed three sets of such preludes for different instruments (I think the others are for viola and cello, but I might be mistaken) and told us that San Francisco Performances was the only place in the world that had presented all three sets (I know I heard one other at a different concert, but I somehow missed a set). Altogether a wonderful concert.
Then last May I heard the season closer of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which seems to be having a golden period right now, under music director Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. Though they are a chamber orchestra they have such a full, rich, and even lush sound - lush yet precise. The concert opened with Grieg's delightful Holberg Suite, whose backward-looking elegance led nicely to the second piece on the program, Commedia dell'Arte, a world premiere by that season's featured composer, Ellen Taafe Zwilich. The first three of the four brief movements are named after famous commedia characters - the trickster clown Arlechinno, his beloved the lovely Columbina, and the boastful Capitano; the fourth movement, Cadenza and Finale, brings them all together. I thought it was a delightful piece, much fresher than actual commedia performances, with amusingly different instrumentation for each movement - for example, a toy drum for the Capitano, which captures his spirit perfectly.
After the intermission came a gorgeous performance of Schoenberg's gorgeous, emotionally rich Verklarte Nacht, and, to close out the ensemble's twentieth anniversary season, the Happy Birthday Variations by Peter Heidrich, in which the eponymous tune is played in the style of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak, and then as a Polka/Waltz, as film music (of the Waxman-Korngold era), as ragtime, as a tango, and then a czardas. The composers and styled are listed in the program but it's actually fun to guess what you're hearing, and though I usually loathe any variation on a guessing game I didn't cheat by looking at my program. That was fun, and the concert was near my companion's birthday, so she had a little serenade. As an encore they played a chamber-orchestra version of "Nimrod," from Elgar's Enigma Variations, which Salerno-Sonnenberg referred to as the most beautiful music in the world.
The connection between these two concerts is that, just as Zwilich was last year's featured composer for NCCO, Auerbach is this year's, with a world premiere coming next May. (More information on that here)