January 29 - Reviewing...

Wrote review of  January 28's Noe Valley Ministry show this morning, for March 2007 21st-Century Music (21stc-centurymusic.com), with another version in San Francisco Classical Voice (sfcv.org), both appearing January 30....


New Music Packs 'Em In at Noe Valley Ministry

It's probably time to lay to rest the myth that contemporary concert music is
box-office suicide.  Of course, it still matters exactly what types of "new
music" are being offered (and the term can be ridiculously broad, encompassing
everything under the sun in the 20th and 21st centuries).  The January 28 Noe
Valley Chamber Music concert offered a slate of neoconservative or
progressively vanguard (or combination thereof, depending on the point of view) composers that filled to capacity the Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church at 1021 Sanchez.  The recital starred the wondrous duo of cellist Emil Miland and
pianist Sarah Cahill, and featured vibrant contributions by clarinetist Cary Bell
and violist Paul Ehrlich.

As in the Biblical Wedding of Cana (fitting in a house of worship after all),
where the best wine was saved for last (and there were fine libations at
intermissions), the concert was capped by the revelation of the afternoon: the
West Coast premiere of David Carlson's Quantum Quartet.  While this work found the most players on stage, there were relatively fewer in the audience, and
the early escapees missed an exceptional event.  With instrumentation akin to
Olivier Messiaen's great Quartet for the End of Time, the Carlson substitutes
viola for violin and finds its spirituality in science (i.e. that branch of
physics known as quantum mechanics).  The three-movement essay seems to be a product of an updated enlightenment, in fresh sounds packaged with the clarity
and wit of 18th-century classicism.  W.A. Mozart and Joseph Haydn came to mind respectively in the crisp viscerality of the melodic material and the
side-stepping, catch-me-if-you-can bits of structural surprises, where one had the
sense that the listener can follow the arguments clearly, and the composer knows
this and is prepared to throw auditors a few loops.

The first movement had all of the sinews of a traditional sonata-allegro
movement, with updated packaging, as in a fine progressive pop exercise that feels no need to reinvent the wheel of song form.  The second "Desolato" included
pre-recorded music by the ensemble -- a faint echo along the lines of George
Crumb, with the house-of-mirrors aspect found in recent Steve Reich works.  The
welcomingly pulse-quickening finale devolved into a mid-section lyricism that
was then re-ratcheted upward in a fugato worthy of Mozart, Mahler, Bartók,
you-name-it.  And the coda -- once again, expectations were set up, then dashed
and delighted.

The first half of the program was full of more understated joys.  In Suite
for Cello and Piano (In Honor of Robert Korns), Lou Harrison takes his East
Asian consciousness through a mill of chamber music classicism, and finds
intrigue in modality and gentle tone clusters.  Can tone clusters be gentle?  Here
they were, in sensitive outbursts from Cahill, with Miland's soulful cello
shining alongside.  Much of Harrison's music is focussed on the sensuality of
melody ("I'm a melode," he was given to say), and this translated here in
knowingly simple textures, often incorporating surprising unisons/octaves and earthy ostinatic accompaniments.

The other offerings with local connections (Carlson is a past and Harrison a
passed-on Northern Californian) were short works by Darius Milhaud (who, while of early French fame, taught for many years at Mills College) and Clare Twohy
(a 22-year-old violinist composer who is about to head off to points unknown
for graduate school).  Milhaud's 1945 Elegie is probably not in many
people's top drawer (beyond cellists and pianists) as a great work, but was
nevertheless a minor masterpiece, one of many from this master who had the curse of profligacy, with over 400 opus numbers to his credit -- right up there with Alan
Hovhaness and certain other Bay Area composers.... The world premiere of
Twohy's Adagio showcased a promising voice who has both lyricism and first-rate contemporary compositional techniques at her disposal.

Benjamin Britten was the odd-composer-out of the Bay Area pantheon.  Sonata
in C for Cello and Piano (1961, Opus 65), shows much this fine English
composer's mid-century concerns, including sharply characterized motives and a
five-movement arch structure that has been part of contemporary consciousness
reaching back to Bartók and up to present times in some of Reich's work.  Like the Carlson and Harrison, clarity is of utmost importance here, although, as in
Peter Grimes occasionally perhaps a bit too self-conscious for its own good --
which is perhaps part of the appeal of this oft-lauded musician.

As has been the case in several instances, the printed program lacked
information about the composers and there music.  It may be that presenters feel that by talking about the music before their performances (and Miland did so to
engaging effect), that they have fulfilled their obligations.  But such is not
the case, and inquiring minds still want to know, without having to dig through
their New Grove Dictionaries of Music the day after.....