01 October 2012


Some more from last season, with a look forward as well. . . .

A few years ago the San Francisco Conservatory of Music moved from wherever it was before to Civic Center, close to the Opera, the Symphony, Herbst Theater, and public transportation. One beneficial result is that it's become much more a part of the performance scene in San Francisco. (Another beneficial result is that it provides a beautiful and intimate new performance space, the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall.) One series I've grown particularly fond of is BluePrint, the new music ensemble, led by Nicole Paiement, who also leads Ensemble Parallele, whose aweseomeness I cannot extol enough. I went to three of their concerts last season; the first one I wrote about here, and the other two I am writing about right here.

The first of the two was "Musical Humors: Discover Philippe Hersant." The very French name (though in fact the composer was born in Rome) and the mention of musical humors led me to expect the sort of music we might typically think of as "French": clear, light, elegant, witty, with clarity of rhetoric taking precedence over sturm und drang. That would have been enjoyable, but his music turned out to be much richer, drawing on a wide variety of sources, musical and literary (his undergraduate degree was in literature). The pieces we heard drew on Basho, Bruce Chatwin, Goethe, and Kafka, and the musical influences he mentions include Heinrich Schutz, Bartok, and Tobias Hume, who published in 1605 a collection of viola da gamba pieces entitled Musical Humors (so what I had read as humor in the sense of comedy was really a reference to the four humors that were thought to control our moods and personalities). The first half of the program consisted of 11 Caprices (each with a title taken from Kafka), a powerful choral setting, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin, of Psaume 130 (Aus Tiefer Not), using Martin Luther's German text (as did Schutz, who inspired this piece), and an instrumental piece, Song Lines. The second half gave us Sonate pour violoncelle seul, Wanderung (using a Goethe poem also used by Schubert and Schumann), and Musical Humors. There are a lot of different influences mentioned here, but the music doesn't sound derivative at all. This was a really fun and effective composer portrait and the name Philippe Hersant is one I now look for.

The other BluePrint concert from last season featured Eight Miniatures for Chamber Ensemble (Hommage a Stravinsky) by Stefan Cwik, Anosmia by Neil Rolnick, and the Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra by Philip Glass. Cwik is a young composer (born 1987) and he spoke to the audience before his piece opened the concert, telling us that his piece was inspired by his formative love of Stravinsky's music. I thought he sold himself a little short in emphasizing his debt to Stravinsky; the piece, for an ensemble of flute, bassoon, violin, and piano, stood up beautifully on its own and certainly didn't come across as the work of a too-ardent disciple.

As for the next piece, Anosmia (the name means the loss of the sense of smell), here is where I am going to mention that Mike Strickland was at the same concert, and I will refer you to his write-up (with lovely photos) here, because he accurately summarizes both my feelings and his contrasting opinion. As he notes, I "thought the piece was too long and [I] wanted to know more about the affliction and less about domestic bliss, but that may say more about him than the work, which I thought was perfect." Yep, that's accurate, even no doubt the part about my reaction saying more about me than about the music, which was indeed fairly light and boppy and pleasant. But I felt it went on about twice as long as it needed to, and I thought Rolnick completely evaded the challenge of presenting loss of smell musically - hearing loss, sure, that you can do, but smell is possibly the most evanescent and subtle of  the senses, which may be one reason it's so linked to memory. So how do you portray its loss, outside of simply describing it? Here it's simply described, only the text didn't really even deal in any serious way with the issue. We have a man who loses his sense of smell, but he has a loving male partner who takes care of him. So lots of the piece is taken up with what seemed sort of smug self-congratulation on having this wonderful partner. I'm happy for him, but it's not much use to the rest of us. The singers were good though (baritone Daniel Cilli, along with soprano Maya Kherani and alto Carrie Zhang). I was much happier with the Glass Concerto for Harpsichord in the second half. The young soloist, Christopher D. Lewis, was just dazzling, and when he finished and jumped up to enthusiastic applause his more concentrated demeanor gave way to a huge relieved grin.

The theme for this year's BluePrint series is Latin America, and the first concert is this Saturday, 6 October. I'm already committed to the Schumann series that Jonathan Biss is running for SF Performances, so sadly I will miss this first concert, but that shouldn't stop you from going (more info here), and I've already marked my calendar for 17 November, 2 March 2013, and 13 April 2013.

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