Tag: San Francisco

Meeting of New Music Minds at SF Gathering

Composer-musician speed dating.

Composer-musician speed dating. Photo by Shaya Lyon.

From January 15-17, 2015, new music makers from across the country gathered at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to share three days of performances, presentations, and discussion. Now that the hustle of this busy conference period is behind them, several participants took a moment to reflect on the ideas they confronted and what their take away was as they returned to their home communities.

Rob Deemer

Over the three years that I wrote weekly for NewMusicBox, I often discussed issues within the concept of the American new music “community.” Over the past fifteen years, that community has evolved from pockets of composers and performers who formed in mostly urban areas around the country to a much more connected and integrated community located online through social media networks, and we may have seen the next step in the evolution of our new music community in San Francisco this past week at the New Music Gathering. I found myself describing it as a “reunion for friends who had never met each other,” but it was much more than that–it was proof in action that an environment that removes the problems of proximity, competition, and ego can generate an immense amount of collaboration, friendship, and growth.

Claire Chase in performance at the Gathering

Claire Chase in performance at the Gathering
Photo by Tina Tallon

For a first-run of a DIY conference that encompassed performers, ensembles, and composers equally, this year’s event was an unmitigated success. There was a good balance between known personalities, from Claire Chase’s wise and inspiring keynote address to the recently unshackled Allan Kozinn doing his best to attend everything, and younger professionals and students. There was a healthy tension between time and content throughout the events–so much good stuff and not enough time to cover everything in the allotted schedule. The concert scope was luxuriously wide–a Boulez-by-memory recital by Taka Kigawa was followed later in the evening with a recital honoring Terry Riley by Sarah Cahill, while a touching and plaintive vocal performance by Baltimore’s Megan Ihnen and Hillary LaBonte served as a wonderful counterpoint to the intricate choral harmonies of Volti.

The presentations were just as diverse as well as informative–from Lainie Fefferman’s participative discussion on new music vocal issues to Samatha Buker’s lecture on working with boards to my own panel on presenting new music, there was a lot of listening and questions and discussions that seemed to always pour out into the hallways after the formal presentations were complete. Finally, the Composer-Performer Speed Dating felt extremely valuable to everyone who I talked to; to be able to comfortably introduce oneself to a potential collaborator with no risk of rejection or judgement is something that could easily be replicated elsewhere, but because of the wealth of attendees from around the country, this event seemed to succinctly encapsulate all of the goals of the conference at one time and in one place.

Obviously much gratitude and recognition needs to be directed toward the quartet of New Yorkers who not only came up with the idea, but had the foresight to hold its initial outing on the West Coast, where the San Francisco Conservatory proved to be a fantastic venue. Kudos should also be given to the many professionals who came out and supported this experiment; the New Music Gathering could have been a disaster if it had been weakly attended, but as one of the seemingly overarching themes of the conference was the support of intelligent risk-taking, the successful outcome will hopefully inspire the sustainability of this important new aspect of our community.

Isaac Schankler

It’s really hard for me to pick highlights from the weekend because I had so many positive experiences and interactions, and did my fair share of presenting and performing as well. But the Established Ensembles panel was especially notable, with administrators and artists representing the Kronos Quartet (Sidney Chen and Christina Johnson), ICE (Claire Chase), and Alarm Will Sound (Gavin Chuck and Matt Marks) present. The sheer amount of brain power and experience on stage was staggering. Most interesting were the responses to a question about the challenges of incorporating entrepreneurial or administrative skills into the college music curriculum. All the panelists expressed reservations about this idea, with Chase going so far as to say that anything she could teach would immediately become obsolete. Chuck suggested a practicum class where students would have to do all the work of putting on a concert themselves.

The roundtable on women in new music was also vital, with Lainie Fefferman, Brenna Noonan, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Leaha Maria Villarreal, and Joelle Zigman mediating an extremely lively discussion with the audience. Topics covered included concert programming, young composer competitions, challenges unique to motherhood, ingrained fear of affirmative action, antagonistic teachers, and a lot more. What became abundantly clear is that there is no single solution to achieving gender parity in new music–it’s a war that must be waged on all fronts.

Gathering organizers Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks on stage.

Gathering organizers Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks on stage.
Photo by Tina Tallon

Performance-wise, again, ugh, how can I possibly choose? But I was literally and figuratively shaken by Vanessa Langer’s arresting performance of David Coll’s Position, influence for soprano and sound sculpture. Coll’s metallic sculpture moaned and keened in sympathy with the virtuosic vocals of Langer, who played her part with an exaggerated theatricality perfectly suited to the outsized nature of the piece. On Saturday night, the Living Earth Show put on a multimedia extravaganza with 100 minutes of memorized music including pieces by Brian Ferneyhough and Luciano Chessa, multiple costume changes, video projection, abrasive electronics, choreographed flashlights, and a Moby Dick-inspired interlude in which the audience was served smoked fish and instant coffee. Not all of the individual parts worked by themselves, but as a gestalt experience it was completely engrossing.

So, the New Music Gathering was basically a big party for ourselves, and as a party, it was an indisputably incredible one. But I couldn’t help but wonder what my experience would have been like if I wasn’t the target demographic. I met someone who unabashedly described himself as a composer of “mostly new age music and show tunes.” How did he feel about the whole shebang? I didn’t ask. But the thought kept coming back to me. The Gathering managed to be admirably inclusive within the existing new music community, which is in and of itself an impressive feat. Now, how could we be more inclusive to the uninitiated?

Shaya Lyon

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man talk about their years together, with moderator Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man talk about their years together, with moderator Mary Kouyoumdjian. Photo by Shaya Lyon.

I’m reeling from the sheer volume of ideas, music, and friendliness that filled these past three days. Every conference should be at least half as productive as this one. The recipe: bring together a bunch of people who love what they do and are committed to doing it more and better. Give them a safe forum to talk about what they know, and how they do, and encourage many questions. Create spaces where they can discover kindred spirits with the purpose of future collaboration. Avoid sales and pitches. Be supportive. Make the goal to advance the collective goal. Rejoice. Eat. Listen. And then sleep.

Throughout the New Music Gathering, I heard composers and musicians talk about challenges with documentation, collaboration, defining a vision, making decisions, making a living–issues not unique to new music. Raw, creative, and largely uncharted, new music may be eliciting questions we’ve long forgotten how to ask in other, more established industries.

Sideband Mobile Quartet (Lainier Fefferman, Anne Hege, Daniel Iglesia and Jascha Narveson) performs with tether controllers. Video courtesy Shaya Lyon.
This is my favorite question of the weekend, a gem from Aaron Siegel (to paraphrase): How can we better ourselves? In order to keep improving at our trade, we need to probe that which is unknown to us. How do we do that? How do we figure out what we don’t know, in order to learn about it? One way is to reach for the fringe (of what we know, what we’re comfortable with).

I leapt at this conference: new music, new people. And the newness didn’t disappoint: there was awkward, and there was awesome. So much to learn.

Composer-musician speed dating; Lainie Fefferman on left.

Composer-musician speed dating; Lainie Fefferman on left. Photo by Shaya Lyon.

Nat Evans

New Music Gathering overall I would say was really successful, and I got a lot out of attending (and presenting) there. Even though it was sort of billed as a “conference-that’s-not-a-conference” it most definitely still was…a conference, which is fine, as this particular one fills a void that exists for a lot of contemporary music. That being said, in the end it still mainly represented the healthy presence of around 100 people who all interact with each other on social media and are in most cases under 40. Is that a healthy cross section of our microcosm? Most definitely! But, it’s not all of it by any means. That’s not the fault of the NMG organizers, as this is the first year and organizing something as big as this is an enormous and oftentimes thankless task, but I do hope that in the coming years people from a more representative cross-section of the music world take notice and apply to be a part of it–I have a feeling that the thoughtful curators will be interested in expanding to represent more ideas in the future.

Also, as great as a lot of the panels, performances, and interactions at the conference were, it also was simply an invaluable time for getting to talk with and meet people from all over the country–some of whom I’d even worked with professionally before but hadn’t actually met. That face-to-face time with folks even if for five or ten minutes seemed to be as much of what the conference was about as anything formally presented.

Garrett Schumann

I had an incredible experience at the New Music Gathering last week, and I think the founders–Daniel Felsenfeld, Matt Marks, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian–deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the event’s success. They led by example as they welcomed a group of wildly different composers and performers to the San Francisco Conservatory, and their enthusiastic selflessness infected everyone who attended and participated in the event. This uncommon leadership resulted in a palpable sense of community that was deeply supportive and encouraging of anyone’s contribution to new music. I left San Francisco inspired but wistful, knowing that feeling of togetherness is a rare thing in our world. However, at least I believe I can count on finding it once a year at future New Music Gatherings.

Judah Adashi

I was delighted to attend the inaugural New Music Gathering (NMG2015) as a composer, artistic director and teacher. My collaborator, cellist and teacher Lavena Johanson, and I presented a performance and talk entitled Putting on a Show: Bringing the Alternative Venue Into the Concert Hall. Lavena played a short concert, performing Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas for unaccompanied cello and my own my heart comes undone for cello and loop pedal. My piece was accompanied by the premiere of a short film by Tim Holt, featuring dancer Sara Paul. After the performance, I shared some thoughts about creating an inviting communal experience around new music.

Lavena Johanson in performance at the Gathering.

Lavena Johanson in performance at the Gathering.
Photo by Judah Adashi

This was an apt topic for a festival-conference hybrid that achieved just that. I came away from NMG2015 deeply impressed by its organizers. It’s hard to imagine four artists more genuine in their intentions or generous in their approach. Lainie, Danny, Mary, and Matt were unfailingly enthusiastic, engaged, and responsive, committed to making NMG2015 the best possible experience for everyone who presented or attended. They set an ideal tone, striking a balance between familial informality and professionalism. The event was a testament to what happens when seasoned grassroots, D.I.Y. artists get together to create something on a large scale.

What excited me most about NMG, both in concept and realization, was the emphasis on the city in which it was held. NMG2015 warmly captured the spirit of San Francisco’s storied and vibrant new music scene, thanks in no small part to the remarkable facilities, resources, and personnel of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as the Center for New Music. This meaningful connection to a city and its musical community strikes me as the singular heart of the NMG enterprise, and a durable template for its bright future.

100 Guitars Rock West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose

On November 17, 100 electric guitarists gathered with their instruments and their amps on stage at the Craneway Pavilion—a former car assembly plant situated on the San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California—for the West Coast premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose. Written in 2006, A Secret Rose had only received two prior performances, undoubtedly due in part to the scale of the venture: musicians for this performance, which was presented by Other Minds, traveled from Europe, South America, and at least a dozen states across the country to be part of this guitar orchestra performance, conducted by Chatham.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
What does an orchestra of 100 electric guitars sound like? Chatham has been exploring the many possible answers to this question for three decades, starting with his 1983 work An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Built in five movements over approximately 75 minutes (with a short tuning break), A Secret Rose fulfills one’s expectations of 100 electric guitars playing simultaneously in the same 45,000 square-foot room—that is, tongue-lollingly loud shredding that triggers involuntary head bobbing—but Chatham covers far more ground than that, and the use of volume is not simply for volume’s sake. The influence of Chatham’s early work with La Monte Young exploring tunings, drones, and overtones emerges in sections where the fundamental is so strongly established that a broad range of aural images emerge hallucinogenically in the air through the overtones: people chanting and yelling, swarms of insects, giant revving motors, dog whistles, and an airplane all made cameos in my mind’s ear.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
The musicians for A Secret Rose are divided into three groups, each with a section leader (in this case, David Daniell, Seth Olinski, and Tobin Summerfield); each group is further subdivided into two smaller groups. Holding the masses together were Chatham, dressed in a proper suit and tie at the center podium playing the part of the conductor with a baton, and the three section leaders stationed on the sides—cuing, clapping, yelling, fist-pumping, and paper-waving to help keep the train on track. The conducting team was supported impressively by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Jordan Glenn, who provided a steady foundation and energetic drive throughout.

Chatham has said, “There’s nothing like the sound of 100 guitars playing quietly,” and he explores this sonority in the third movement, thinning out the texture and having individual musicians play single pitches. Chatham left his conducting post and walked among the musicians, triggering pointillistic mini-bursts of sound as he passed. As the nebula of aleatoric pitches amassed, a giant celestial harpsichord seemed to emerge, with the fingers of the guitarists as the plectra—perhaps unsurprising, given that Chatham’s first instrument as a child was a virginal.

Other sections drew strongly from Chatham’s rock background, with homages and references to myriad styles and artists scattered throughout—each person I spoke to afterwards heard a different selection of influences embedded within the piece. The second movement was at times downright tuneful, a series of giant-scale rock instrumentals; at other points, it presented a great vibrating wall of sound that you could feel on the skin. Chatham set major and minor chords grinding upon each other across the sections, all the more unsettling at a heightened volume. Multiple concurrent meters were frequently used, creating the sensation of a behemoth machine with a variety of differently sized gears, moving itself forward with an immense amount of energy and effort. Despite the near unanimity of orchestration, the textural variations that Chatham found made for a constantly shifting and surprising listening experience.

A Secret Rose was a special presentation by Other Minds, led by the San Francisco Bay Area’s experimental music evangelist Charles Amirkhanian. In June, Other Minds hosted a performance of Chatham’s seminal Guitar Trio at The Lab in the Mission (covered previously in NewMusicBox here) as a preview to A Secret Rose. At an event later that week, a lengthy conversation between Amirkhanian and Chatham was videotaped and posted in chunks on Vimeo. One excerpt, in which Chatham talks about going to his first rock concert ever—which happened to be the Ramones at CBGB—is posted above. Other Minds does an extraordinary job not just archiving the organization’s activities but also making those recordings available to the public. A full recording of this performance of A Secret Rose is scheduled to be posted at RadiOM when it is available.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
As the guitarists were tuning after the quietly plucked third movement, I commented to my companion that it wasn’t quite as loud as I had anticipated, since free earplugs were available at the front desk when we arrived. The final movement removed any disappointment on that front: with the full ensemble pounding on one minor chord for minutes on end, overtones began screaming like banshees in the cavernous space of the pavilion, and 100 variations on how rock guitarists move and sweat while shredding came on display. As a final gesture, Chatham himself took up his guitar and turned to the audience, faced up to the skies and fell to his knees, providing that moment of punk rock catharsis that we all had been waiting for.

The World Beyond the Classroom: SFCM Nurtures Community Creativity and Optimism

The school year has begun anew at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a fresh class of students, but a remarkable group of recent graduates exhibits no sign of floating despairingly at sea, idly wondering how to move on with their lives. They aren’t chasing orchestra auditions or applying for an endless stream of competitions either. In the past several years, the San Francisco new music community has been energized by a wave of performers emerging from SFCM who are deeply, and in some cases exclusively, committed to the creation of new work, supported by a tightly knit network of composer peers and mentors. And while there certainly has been no shortage of composers and new music performers coming out of schools across the country, the concentration of commitment to new music and the interconnectedness of the network coming out of SFCM in recent years has been exceptional.

Virtual tour of atrium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new building
It is not a coincidence that the school relocated to a new facility in 2006. Previously situated in a foggy residential area which felt isolated and well removed from downtown, the school’s move to a new glass-filled building with a large, open atrium represented a major identity shift for the institution. The new building is located just off one of the main city crossroads, around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, and City Hall. Not only has the proximity benefitted the students, who are more integrated into the city’s daily cultural activity; the city’s audience has become more aware of the school’s activity in turn—getting to the conservatory’s performances has gotten immeasurably easier due to the location and is therefore more appealing.

One result of this integration into the city center has been a noticeable reconfiguration of the community of new music makers in San Francisco. The local influence of SFCM alumni has been growing for several years: the multi-genre Switchboard Festival, now in its 7th year, was founded by SFCM graduates (Jeff Anderle, Ryan Brown, and Jonathan Russell), as was alumna Minna Choi’s fabulously flexible Magik*Magik Orchestra, which gave the West Coast premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s string orchestra piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver to a sold-out audience in 2008. And though the focus is not on new music, Classical Revolution—founded by Charith Premawardhana in 2006 and designed to increase chamber music’s accessibility by placing performances into a broad range of non-traditional spaces—now boasts over 30 chapters internationally and exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit that has been internalized by many of these recent graduates.
But in the last couple of years several new music ensembles with their roots in the conservatory have reached a new stage in their development, growing up together almost as a collective in close collaboration with an intergenerational community of composers. Among these groups are the Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, Friction Quartet, and Nonsemble 6, all of whom are commissioning and pioneering new work. The unusual concentration of activity begs a look at how this environment nurtured this development.


Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire

Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire
Photo by Irwin Lewis, Corsetry by Autumn Adamme/Dark Garden

In speaking to members of each of these four ensembles, there is an admirable sense of entrepreneurship, empowerment, and self-motivation across the board. Soprano Amy Foote, who co-founded Nonsemble 6 with clarinetist Annie Phillips, says simply, “I wanted these opportunities, so I created them!” This self-possessed sentiment is echoed by her colleagues in other ensembles: the lesson that it is possible and even necessary to make things happen for oneself has clearly hit its mark. Nonsemble 6 first began to take shape in 2009, when Foote and Phillips approached the chamber music faculty with the idea of performing Pierrot Lunaire. The request was green-lighted, and the school helped them to fill out the ensemble with Justin Lee (flute), Kevin Rogers (violin), Ian Scarfe (piano), and Anne Suda (cello). Since then, the group has memorized and staged the work, and has toured the production in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. In continuing support of their efforts, SFCM also presented them on their newly established Alumni Recital Series last season. In the meantime, Nonsemble 6 has begun to commission new works, specifically with the goal of developing staged monodramas where the instrumentalists are equal theatrical participants with the vocalist. (A current project is wishes, lies, and dreams by fellow graduate Danny Clay, with a libretto developed in writing workshops for children aged 8 to 12, led by Foote and Clay at Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia.)
A milestone in Nonsemble 6’s development, which was later shared by the Mobius Trio, was the school’s choice to have them represent SFCM at the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, a performance series hosted by the Center to showcase the nation’s top musical talent. Nonsemble 6 was given the opportunity to present their production of Pierrot Lunaire in Washington in 2010; the Mobius Trio performed on the same series the following year with a program of works written for them that included Persian Dances by SFCM composer Sahba Aminikia. Both groups cited access to this national platform as a major opportunity and motivator to hone their work.

Mobius Trio

Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder
Photo courtesy of Mobius Trio)

While Nonsemble 6 had the canonic Pierrot Lunaire to launch their group, the Mobius Trio—classical guitarists Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance, all protégés of David Tanenbaum and Sérgio Assad—had no established repertoire to draw on, and therefore had to build an entire catalogue of music for themselves from scratch, a situation that Tanenbaum points out has been the case for guitarists since Segovia’s time. Through an interdepartmental program at the school called Doublespeak developed by the guitar and composition chairs (Tanenbaum and Dan Becker, respectively), 20 composers were paired with guitarists to create new works, yielding 150 minutes of music for guitar. Doublespeak was modeled on an existing, successful program at SFCM called the Viola Project, begun in 2004 by string department chair Jodi Levitz and Becker. In addition to the benefits that composers gain from working in-depth with instruments that might not get a lot of their attention otherwise, both Tanenbaum and Levitz have spoken of the deeper sense of identification with a piece that performers gain while working on music written expressly for them. “Students would make extreme efforts to stretch their technique to new heights to perform ‘their’ works,” Levitz says. “This made me realize the power of ‘ownership’ of a work.“ Thanks in part to Doublespeak, the composer base that had experience writing for classical guitar was enlarged, and the trio went to work commissioning not only their peers, but also their teachers.

The integration of faculty members into this community, not only as mentors but also as collaborators, has been particularly gratifying to observe. Becker has an obvious, deep-rooted affection for his composition students and their performer colleagues alike, and has himself composed works for several of these groups. Sérgio Assad, who with Odair Assad forms the awe-inspiring Assad Brothers guitar duo, doesn’t simply coach or advise Mobius; he agreed to produce their first album and is writing for the ensemble as well. Students speak gratefully of Becker and Luciano Chessa, who is on the music history faculty, hosting informal listening parties in their homes. As a performer himself, Chessa has worked with The Living Earth Show and is writing a new work for Nonsemble 6.

The Living Earth Show

The Living Earth Show at Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The Living Earth Show—Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, electric guitar—started in 2010 out of Meyerson’s realization that the most musically rewarding path for him would be “to commission new works and play things that wouldn’t otherwise be played.” The duo, which has an album scheduled to be released on Innova this fall, has also had three works written for them by faculty members. When asked to describe the support that he and The Living Earth Show have received from the administration and faculty, Meyerson uses the words “endless,” “loving,” and “seemingly unconditional”—terms more commonly applied to one’s favorite grandmother than the administration of an institution.

In addition to the duo, Meyerson co-founded the annual Hot Air Music Festival in 2010, a full-day new music marathon event that takes place at the conservatory each spring. (Last year there was also an off-site Hot Air After Party concert at the Hotel Utah, a saloon dating back to 1908 that regularly presents independent music in the South of Market area, where Mobius, Living Earth, and the Friction Quartet shared the bill.) With Becker as a faculty sponsor, the organizers of the festival received academic credit as an independent study project, free space provided by the school, and some PR assistance. Building on the model of the Switchboard Festival (which is independent of the school, though founded by alumni) and Becker’s own experience producing OPUS415 marathons with his Common Sense Composers’ Collective, the Hot Air Music Festival was launched, allowing Meyerson and his co-founders the experience of entrepreneurship within a supported environment.

The Friction Quartet is one beneficiary of Hot Air’s greenhouse: founded by violinist Kevin Rogers and cellist Douglas Machiz, Friction wanted specifically to play John Adams’s String Quartet and programmed it for Hot Air in 2012. (In addition to Rogers and Machiz, the quartet includes violinist Otis Harriel and violist Pei-Ling Lin.) According to Rogers, a number of people came to hear that work specifically, and their performance, which was then posted on YouTube, brought them to the attention of other composers, who began contacting them. Among those writing for the group now is Becker, who is collaborating with Friction on a major project for Bay Area dance luminaries Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton titled A Show of Hands, which Friction will perform live with Garrett+Moulton Productions in October.

Rogers’s interest in contemporary music began well before coming to SFCM. He speaks of becoming familiar with Penderecki and Berio before Beethoven, and cites the experience of hearing the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet’s recording of Black Angels as an inspiration.** With this existing interest in new music, Rogers (who was the violinist assigned through the chamber music program to the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble that has now become Nonsemble 6) is grateful that his teacher Bettina Mussemeli was “willing to get her hands dirty and explore” contemporary works with him that she didn’t know herself. Likewise, he also credits conductor Nicole Paiement, who directs both the school’s new music ensemble (a student ensemble) and Opera Parallèle (the conservatory’s resident professional new music ensemble, which recruits students to perform with professionals) for sharing her “infectious energy for new music.”


Now that they have graduated, all of these ensembles fully embrace the idea that their paths forward require them to be enterprising and to take on the responsibility of cultivating their own paths. As Mason Fish of Mobius points out, “To come out of college with direction like this is rare.” The school has also recognized the need to continue developing this ethic in their current students: Switchboard and Sqwonk Duo co-founder Jeff Anderle, Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi, and Nonsemble 6 co-founder Annie Phillips are teaching a two-semester graduate-level course this year titled “Musical Startups,” developed by Anderle and the Dean’s office at SFCM. Phillips says the curriculum will include information about “how to found a project, structure it in a way that makes sense, and other practical business” skills. As each ensemble has found, the division of labor has tended to emerge organically, as individuals tap into natural skill sets to further each group administratively.
Nonetheless, the barriers they are now encountering outside the conservatory environment are painfully familiar. About fundraising, Rogers says simply, “We don’t know how to do it.” Mobius’s Nance notes, perhaps jokingly, “90% of my time for Mobius is admin.” As for Nonsemble 6, Foote adds, “I know that there’s a learning curve… There’s a lot we don’t know about the ins and outs of certain institutions. It takes years before you learn that, let alone how to write a good budget, a good proposal. We need support from people who know these organizations.”

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To help guide these young ensembles through this transitional period, the newly formed Center for New Music, founded by Adam Fong and Brent Miller, has stepped in to provide guidance and access to an infrastructure that disappears once students have graduated. Fong, a composer himself who worked as Other Minds’ associate director prior to starting the Center, says that behind the Center is the idea that a community working together helps everyone thrive. “We’re very fortunate in the Bay Area to have not just one, but multiple generations of leaders in contemporary music who are very present and active,” Fong says. “We work in such a small niche of the musical world that it behooves us to think collaboratively, to work together, to function as multipliers of each other’s artistic impact.”
The Center, which just opened last fall in San Francisco’s still developing mid-Market district, is a performance space, a rehearsal space, an office space, a meeting space—in short, an area that allows young artists and artists without an established infrastructure to work and experiment. The Center has also begun to offer workshops on grant writing and other administrative tasks, as well as provide consulting to select ensembles, including the Mobius Trio who are appreciative of the fact that Fong and his colleagues are willing to share the “stuff you don’t learn in school” in their regular meetings.

Fortunately the school’s new music community is aware that it provides a web of support as everyone tries to find a successful transition into their professional performing careers. Foote speaks of her hope that the “community will build support for itself,” with ensembles and composers “legitimizing each other.” “Together we form a conglomerate, a collective,” she says. “Finding a way to congeal these groups together will help us all out.” Meyerson of The Living Earth Show expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “I can’t really imagine a healthier and more creatively rewarding sense of camaraderie among students, faculty, and staff.” Indeed, the interconnectedness of this community, fostered by the environment at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has proven itself to be amazingly fruitful, yielding dozens of new scores which are getting committed performances from excellent musicians. Our job now is to continue nurturing this environment of creativity and optimism.

When I asked how the new music community can help extend the wave of energy currently in motion, Meyerson said, “I think the only support we could ask from the established new music community is to check out our recordings and shows, and check out more if they like it.” Websites for some of the emerging ensembles and composers who are part of this community are listed below.
Anthony Porter | Classical Revolution | Danny Clay | Friction Quartet | Joseph Colombo | Kevin Villalta | The Living Earth Show | Magik*Magik Orchestra | Mobius Trio | Nonsemble 6 | Sahba Aminikia | Sqwonk | Switchboard Festival

**(Disclaimer: I work for the Kronos Quartet, and Dan Becker has also developed a mentoring program for his composition students who observe rehearsals and have access to Kronos’ Artistic Director David Harrington. Some students have written and arranged works for Kronos, and some performers mentioned are receiving mentoring advice from Harrington as well.)

Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The San Francisco Opera’s summer season, which concluded this past weekend, featured the world premiere production of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. A work six years in development with a libretto written by the composer, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is an earnestly personal and thoroughly researched re-examination of the role of the main women in Jesus’s life—Mary Magdalene and his mother (who is called Miriam in the opera)—as well as an attempt to understand Jesus and his disciple Peter as flawed human beings.

Adamo’s recasting of the story of Jesus’s life is rooted in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, texts that were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Written in the first couple of centuries of the Christian church, these alternate tellings of Jesus’s history did not become part of the canonical texts that we are most familiar with. Nearly every discussion about the opera I have heard or read has made mention of the 116 clearly sourced footnotes in Adamo’s libretto, and though some have found them surprising or amusing, it cannot be denied that this opera is a serious inquiry on Adamo’s part, an attempt to filter scholarship through the lens of opera and theater. He has said specifically that he is not thumbing his nose at the story as it has traditionally been told; rather, he said in an NPR interview, “I love this tradition. I would not have been able to write as I wrote unless I thought the story would gain rather than lose nobility, credibility, and passion.”

The most non-traditional elements of this telling feature Mary Magdalene’s central role in Jesus’s life as his wife, one who is at his side as he preaches and who is a forceful counterweight to his disciple Peter. Also, rather than being the son of God born from an immaculate conception, Jesus is explicitly described as a bastard child of Miriam, who was a teenage bride impregnated by a man other than Joseph, and who was given the choice to abort but decided against it. It may be that the seriousness with which both Adamo and the San Francisco Opera approached the topic—talk-back discussions were held after each performance with Kayleen Asbo, a cultural historian and mythologist, and multiple ancillary events were held at Grace Cathedral in advance of the premiere—helped to deter any public protest regarding the work. Nonetheless, San Francisco Opera’s General Manger David Gockley, who had also commissioned Adamo’s previous two operas (Little Women and Lysistrata) when he was at Houston Grand Opera, did say that the topic scared away other opera companies, leaving San Francisco Opera as the sole commissioner.

This premiere production of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene luxuriated in exceptional American musical talent, spearheaded by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke singing and performing the title role with fervor and clarity throughout. Frequent stage partners Nathan Gunn and William Burden portrayed Yeshua (Jesus, in Hebrew) and Peter, respectively, with Burden delivering a particularly compelling performance during the Passion scene in which his cowardice leads him to deny his relationship with Yeshua. Soprano Maria Kanyova, who portrayed Pat Nixon in last season’s production of Nixon in China (covered in NewMusicBox here), returned to the company for the role of Miriam. Conductor Michael Christie, who, like Sasha Cooke, was making his first appearance with the San Francisco Opera, led the proceedings confidently, balancing the orchestra well with the singers, who had a great deal of text in English to deliver, and allowing Adamo’s varied and evocative orchestration to shine.

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Adamo places Mary and Yeshua’s story within a contemporary framework by opening the opera with five “Seekers” dressed in contemporary clothes who enter the set while the house lights are still up, mirroring the audience members who are entering the house. The mammoth set designed by David Korins, which never moves in the course of the production, evokes an archeological dig site in which the Seekers voice their concern about modern-day religion: namely, that they—or perhaps we, or perhaps specifically Adamo—have been taught that the body is “unholy” and “the very source of sin,” and that this “poisonous” view of the physical and sexual self has caused years of hurt. And yet, the need to find a way to integrate their religion with the rest of their lives remains, and it sets up the rest of the opera as an attempt to “correct” and “complete” the story as it has been told traditionally. For most of the rest of the production, the Seekers remain on stage, often observing and commenting but sometimes interacting, acting as our avatars within the story as it develops.

For such a radical retelling of a canonical work, Adamo’s musical language is notably un-revolutionary; clarity of text delivery is prioritized through lyrical lines and repeated motives that move among various people throughout the opera, musically interweaving the characters’ lives. In the chorus’s frequent appearances throughout the work—the most effective being the crucifixion scene, where they violently deliver a version of the Dies Irae text, in Greek—Adamo often has them sing homophonically or in vocalise, making their pithy commentary clearly understandable. (The most memorable instance of this is when they interject footnotes into the action.)

Adamo has spoken openly of the challenges of his Catholic upbringing, as a gay man whose divorced mother continued to send him to church and Catholic school even after she was denied communion. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is clearly born from the desire to excavate that personal history through looking at the real people buried under two millennia of mythology. In this process of humanizing these characters, however, the holy and spiritual aspects of these figures are often left by the wayside. For this listener, the missing linchpin in this look at Jesus’s life was divinity: in this portrayal, it was hard to understand why Jesus gained the following and devotion that he did. In the scenes where Yeshua is preaching, he is given a fire and brimstone diatribe and a comic theatrical moment referencing circumcision, but holiness is notably absent. Yeshua invokes God only once in the entire production, when he is on the cross, forsaken. Nearly all other references to God are uttered by the women, and not necessarily in a reverential way. At best, the character of Yeshua seems almost a boorish bro; at worst, he might be perceived as a misogynistic and hypocritical charlatan. Even Miriam and Peter seem to mock Mary Magdalene at first for naively falling for Yeshua’s charismatic preaching. When the gathered crowd passionately declares him the Messiah, it is difficult to see what motivates them to do so.

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Among the most significant “corrections” that the Seekers allude to in the opera’s prologue is the translation of John 20:17, which occurs in the final scene and which Adamo explains in his penultimate footnote:

Translated into Latin as Noli me tangere, or “Don’t touch me,” this line, over centuries, inspired thousands of paintings of a tearful grasping wench thrust aside by an angel bent on higher things: the very image of the Church’s ancient equation of women with sex and sin. But the original line, in Greek, means, as rendered here, “Do not hold on to me,” or “let me go.”

In the opera’s version of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, taken from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, the crypt is not empty: the corpse is still there, but Yeshua’s ghost appears behind Mary. (The most questionable directorial choice of the production involved Yeshua’s unintentionally amusing ascension into the crypt by means of a hydraulic lift, and subsequent descending into heaven through the stage fog.) Their final duet, launched by Yeshua’s plea to let go of the ones we love, is perhaps the clearest instance of the influence of American musical theater on Adamo’s compositional language. Yeshua urges Mary to “tell them” his and her stories—essentially to spread the Gospel in her terms—a task that Adamo has taken on in this opera.

During the run of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we saw the Supreme Court rulings on California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA, as well as Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster in Texas (and Governor Rick Perry’s subsequent comments about her as a teenage mother at a Right to Life conference). Directly across the street from the San Francisco Opera house is the City Hall where same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses during a brief window in 2004, and the plaza where San Francisco’s annual gay pride celebration was taking place. Within this context, Adamo’s opera, which aims to reconcile sexuality with a Christian life, and which argues for a woman’s right to possess a physical identity without abandoning spirituality, could not have found a more appropriate home than the San Francisco Opera.

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

Opera Parallèle Presents Golijov’s Ainadamar

Lobby - Ainadamar
Moving silently throughout the lobby and the theater prior to the start of Opera Parallèle’s recent performances were girls dressed entirely in white, carrying valises, and young women, also in white though their dress hems were soaked in red. These ghostly apparitions moved up and down the aisles and sat quietly among audience members, not interacting but making their presence felt. By the start of the show, all of Las Niñas had made their way onto the stage of the Lam Research Theater at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the opening scene of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, which received its first San Francisco production earlier this month.

Golijov’s opera, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang (which was translated into Spanish by Golijov), dramatizes the life of Spanish actress Margarita Xirgu (1888–1969), muse to writer Federico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936; murdered by Fascist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War). In real life, Xirgu created the role of Mariana Pineda in Lorca’s play of the same name; Pineda was herself an Andalucian historical figure who also was executed for her unyielding commitment to liberal causes. The 90-minute opera shows Xirgu in the moments at the end of her life, preparing to go onstage in a production of Mariana Pineda, remembering her (non-romantic) relationship with Lorca in flashbacks and visualizing the circumstances of his execution. The opera concludes with Xirgu’s own passing and transfiguration.

Ainadamar - Fountain of Tears

Marnie Breckenridge (center) as Margarita Xirgu, flanked by chorus members, flamenco dancers, and Lisa Chavez (in bowtie) as Federico García Lorca
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Xirgu, sung by soprano Marnie Breckenridge, and Lorca, a trouser role performed by Lisa Chavez, were joined by Xirgu’s student/protégée Nuria (Maya Kherani) and a chorus of treble voices, sung in these performances by a 13-voice women’s choir and the 15 young members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus dressed in white. Opera Parallèle’s production also featured five women flamenco dancers led by La Tania, who are seen during the opening chorus having their children torn from their arms by male soldiers, a reference to the tens of thousands of “lost children” who were stolen from Republican families by Nationalists for re-education.

Flamenco dancer La Tania

Flamenco dancer La Tania (in white) and four members of her troupe, with Breckenridge, above
hoto by Steve Dibartolomeo

By casting a chorus of young girls alongside the women, and also adding a corps of female dancers who at times appeared as mother figures, Opera Parallèle’s production, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, highlighted the impact of the war on women as well as intergenerational female relationships. While the score calls for a female choir (divided into three groups) to sing Las Niñas’ part, it does not specify children. This choice was a significant and thought-provoking shift from the 2005 production in Santa Fe directed by Peter Sellars, who had been instrumental in significantly revising the dramatic structure of the work after the initial performances in 2003 at Tanglewood. Whereas Sellars’s production, which had an ensemble of only eight adult women who often surrounded Xirgu like acolytes, placed its emphasis on far-right militarism and showed Lorca being shot in the ass repeatedly on stage after being called a maricón (faggot) during the “Interludio de Balazos” (“Gunshot interlude”), Staufenbiel placed Lorca’s killing offstage, instead bringing on three male soldiers to shoot the dancers, who had previously been shown protesting and lamenting Lorca’s imminent execution.

Jesús Montoya and Breckenridge

Jesús Montoya and Breckenridge enact the execution of Mariana Pineda by garrote
Photo by Steve Dibartolomeo

The score places a number of unusual demands on both the cast and the production team. Margarita Xirgu, nominally a soprano role given the luminous high Bs and Cs written for the final moments of her life, spends much of the opera singing at the bottom of and below the staff as a mature woman, but also jumps to usual soprano range for flashbacks to her youth. The role of Lorca is written astonishingly and consistently low, tapping into an unfamiliar husky timbre that is disorienting and intriguing in its power. The primary male role (there are three other small roles for men, in the passion play that surrounds Lorca’s death) is the fascist officer, Ruiz Alonso, who was played in this production by Jesús Montoya, a flamenco singer who produces a full-throated and passionately raw sound that isn’t taught in conservatory voice studios. (Montoya, who recorded the role for Deutsche Grammophon, has sung in multiple productions of Ainadamar, though this is the first one in which he has had to act the role on stage.) All of the performances, including Kherani’s crystalline Nuria, were vocally commanding, but Breckenridge’s committed physical embodiment of Xirgu provided the continuous thread that held the production together.

Chavez, Breckenridge and Kherani in the final trio

Chavez, Breckenridge and Kherani in the final trio
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Because the vocal parts are often in unusual ranges, the singers are amplified throughout the performance. Also, there are prerecorded elements throughout the show—the sound of drops of water (Ainadamar, which translates as Fountain of Tears, is a reference to a fountain outside of Alfácar), galloping horses, gunshots, and a field recording of a prayer ceremony—in addition to extensive percussion and keyboard parts within a highly spirited and impressively cohesive 32-piece orchestra, conducted by Nicole Paiement. Unfortunately, these disparate elements required a more sophisticated and integrated sound design than what Opera Parallèle was able to provide, and as a result there was inconsistency in the levels of the singers and some occasional distortion at the performance I attended.

Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, at an open rehearsal

Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, at an open rehearsal

Ainadamar is Opera Parallèle’s first production since changing its name from Ensemble Parallèle. This small company, founded in 1993 by Paiement, has turned their focus to contemporary opera with several successful productions over the past few seasons—last year’s production of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby was an award winner in January’s National Opera Association competition—and the change brings their name in line with their current identity. The company has been making a concerted effort to open up the rehearsal process to audiences, offering sneak previews and open rehearsals to the public free of charge. Opera Parallèle’s season continues with a double-bill of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge in April, and a workshop of the company’s first commission, Dante De Silva’s Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, in June.


News in Brief: The San Francisco Girls Chorus announced this month that Lisa Bielawa—composer, longtime vocalist of the Philip Glass Ensemble, founder of the MATA Festival, and a Girls Chorus alumna—has been named artistic director, charged with overseeing the group’s programming and developing new artistic partnerships. Bielawa will divide her time between San Francisco and New York; principal conducting duties at the chorus will be assumed by Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

Kronos Quartet Wraps Residency with a San Francisco Celebration

Kronos Quartet

Photo by Michael Wilson

The Kronos Quartet wrapped up a three-year residency at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this month with a program devoted to San Francisco composers, and as I rode the train into the city I thought about the impact they have had on new music, classical music in general, and even popular culture. But even a global ensemble like Kronos is still a hometown band somewhere, part of a musical community in which they participate and which in turn supports them. This program of all San Francisco composers—Dan Becker, Stephen Prutsman, Nathaniel Stookey, and Pamela Z—was an acknowledgement of the influence San Francisco has had on Kronos, its home since 1978.

Dan Becker

Dan Becker

The concert, titled “Listen Local,” began with Dan Becker’s Carrying the Past, which incorporates excerpts of 78rpm recordings of his grandfather, who was a big band trumpet player in the 1920s. It opens with one of these excerpts and the string quartet slowly emerges from the scratchy, vintage sound. The intensity quickly builds and sharp exclamations cut through a tangle of complex, competing rhythmic patterns. Carrying the Past proceeds in sections separated by short interludes of big band excerpts alone, which serve as commas or points of stillness in the work. When the string quartet is playing the excerpts are often more abstract, especially toward the end of the piece where they mimic sci-fi whizzes, zooms, and pops. Kronos’s playing was razor sharp, especially in the keening, intertwining melodic lines played by violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, though I sometimes had difficulty hearing Sherba in the mix. (The quartet was amplified.) If their subtle use of vibrato on these high, sustained notes accentuated some minor pitch issues, it also created a sense of rawness and electricity.

Nathaniel Stookey

Nathaniel Stookey
Photo by Ole Lütjens

Next was world premiere of San Francisco native Nathaniel Stookey’s String Quartet No. 3, “The Mezzanine,” inspired by Nicholson Baker’s novel of the same name. Baker’s book is a probing account, extensively footnoted, Proustian in its attention to detail, of a man’s thought processes as he performs various mundane tasks during his lunch hour. “We composers often go to great lengths to discourage our audience from looking for connections between our music and the titles we give it,” Stookey wrote in the program note. “In the case of my third quartet, the music really is about escalators, drinking straws, shoelaces, vending machines, and cigarette butts.”

The escalator reference is clear in the quartet’s first movement. Fragments of whole-tone scales calmly ascend independently of one another, occasionally aligning to produce warm major sonorities. The second movement—a stream-of-consciousness mix of styles—contains frenetic, rhythmic episodes alternating with Baroque-like asides, a gentle trio anchored by Jeffrey Zeigler’s resonant cello pizzicati, and a melancholy habanera. Throughout the work phrases are often interrupted by abrupt changes to a crystalline musical texture marked by the use of upper registers, fleet melodic fragments, or spiccato runs. Perhaps this, as well as movements like the second that seem to end by wandering off mid-phrase, depict the thought processes of Howie, the protagonist of Baker’s novel. The final movement of Stookey’s quartet pits heavy, sawing triplet figures against a fiddle tune, played with gusto by Harrington. These two ideas alternate and eventually form an uneasy coexistence with the fiddle tune shouting to be heard over the triplets. In the closing bars the ascending escalator figures of the opening return and carry the music away.

Stephen Prutsman

Stephen Prutsman

After the break the Kronos Quartet performed four arrangements created especially for them by their long-time collaborator Stephen Prutsman. Violinist John Sherba took a starring turn in Prutsman’s arrangement of Indian film composer Rahul Dev Burman’s Mehbooba Mehbooba (Beloved, O Beloved), a bouncy Bollywood-style number depicting a sultry gypsy dance. Violist Hank Dutt was outstanding in Prutsman’s arrangement of Tanburi Cemil Bey’s Evic Taksim. It opens with wheezing, harmonium-like chords and unfolds like a recitative. Hushed, sustained harmonies support Dutt’s wonderfully rhapsodic playing. Every ornament and glissando was utterly natural, and his tone was so throaty, so richly textured you could almost reach out and touch it. Wa Habibi (O My Beloved), based on an Arab Orthodox hymn, was a chorale-like lament, while the closing arrangement of Ethiopian saxophonist Gétatchèw Mèkurya’s Aha Gèdawo projected the swagger and fury of warriors right before battle. Here Prutsman piled on layer after layer of aggressive musical gestures creating a dense polyrhythmic texture, and Kronos tore into their instruments, sounding as close to a howling saxophone as a string quartet can. They seemed to really be in their element with the works, savoring the glissandi and microtonal inflections in the works by Burman and Bey, and relishing in the chest thumping in Mèkurya’s Ethiopian war cry. It was the most warm, open playing of the night.

The world premiere of composer/performer and media artist Pamela Z’s And the Movement of the Tongue rounded out the program, and it proved to be an evocative, funny, touching, and brilliant work. Inspired by speaking accents, its twelve brief movements are each based on the interplay of composed music and recorded sound. Z describes her process in the program note:

To create the piece, I conducted and recorded interviews with a number of people who speak English with a variety of either regional, foreign language, or cultural accents. Combing through those recorded interviews, I hand-selected speech fragments (phonemes, words, phrases, and complete sentences) that I found to be sonically or musically interesting. I created hundreds of audio clips, which I used to construct the text collage that became a kind of armature for the work. Many of the motifs in the string parts were derived from the melodic and rhythmic material found in the samples of those speech fragments.

Pamela Z

Pamela Z
Photo by Donald Swearingen

The recorded material is the main focus of And the Movement of the Tongue and for the most part the string quartet plays a supporting role, which Kronos did with the perfect balance of expression and restraint. Most of the movements are based on a basic musical idea or texture, played by the quartet, that accompanies the recorded text collage. In the third movement, “Rain,” for example, pizzicato playing by the quartet mimics the irregular patter of rain drops while the text collage is a mash up of different pronunciations of the word “rain.” In “Tongue,” the fifth movement, recorded fragments of non-native English speakers talking about tongue placement in English pronunciation float on a bed of simple oscillating harmonies. In the eleventh movement, “I Don’t Know,” Pamela Z layers musical phrases—musical transcriptions of the spoken words and phrases in the text collage—over short, recurring melodic fragments. And the Movement of the Tongue is profound in a very human way. Like a great film score, the music suggests a context for the spoken words and illustrates their musicality as well. It hints at the small things, like accents, that distinguish us, and it also makes us acknowledge issues beyond our control, such as how others often choose to define us. For an encore Kronos played an arrangement of the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Aside from the balance issues in Becker’s Carrying the Past, sound designer Scott Frasier did a nice job blending the live and recorded sounds, though I did feel that the quartet sound was a bit compressed and lacking in warmth. Laurence Neff’s lighting design was understated and beautifully coordinated with the music. Witnessing well-done stagecraft like that really makes me wonder why more groups aren’t employing it.
If this concert was about celebrating the vibrant San Francisco community of which the Kronos Quartet is a part, there was no better embodiment of this than the woman sitting behind me with her service dog. Before the concert started, one of the ushers said jokingly, “I hope your dog likes music,” to which the woman replied seriously, “Oh yes, she’s a long-time fan of Kronos.” When your hometown fans include multiple species, you know you’re doing something right.


Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of The Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

SFCMP Presents Sold-Out Reich Event

I’ve never seen the lobby of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as crowded as on January 28 before the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s concert of music by Steve Reich, built around Reich’s magnum opus Music for 18 Musicians. SFCMP had completely sold out the conservatory’s 450-seat concert hall in advance: it became one of those events where numerous people suddenly turned to Facebook the morning of the show to cast about for tickets. There was a sense of anxious jostling while trying to get into the performance hall that we don’t usually associate with new music concerts. This is the second season in SFCMP’s 42-year history that has been under the artistic direction of Steven Schick, the longtime champion of contemporary music for percussion. Given the enthusiasm surrounding this program—titled “Confirmation,” a reference to Reich’s pithy response when asked what he had gained after his 1970 trip to West Africa—it will be interesting to see what other interests Schick and SFCMP can tap into as his tenure progresses.

Steven Schick, courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

Steven Schick
Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

The repertoire was a reprise of a concert Schick had presented a year ago at University of California, San Diego (where Schick is a professor) with his new music ensemble red fish blue fish, augmented with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Here, the core musicians were members of SFCMP, who were joined by conservatory students. The student musicians’ contribution to this effort was not insignificant: for Music for 18 Musicians, five of the percussionists, two pianists, and the four vocalists were drawn from the student body. (All told there were 21 musicians on stage.) It was an admirable example of this professional ensemble integrating its work with an educational institution to create an opportunity that would have been difficult to realize without SFCMP and Schick’s guidance.

The evening opened with the three percussionists of SFCMP—William Winant, Daniel Kennedy, and Christopher Froh, all pioneering musicians in their own right—and Schick performing Clapping Music, which began before the applause welcoming them to the stage had died down. It was performed two on a part, with Schick and Kennedy taking the base track and Winant and Froh moving out of phase. The musicians approached it with a sense of playfulness that would seem out of place with a pure process piece if it weren’t so purely enjoyable to see and hear four guys who clearly enjoyed the physicality of rhythm making sounds simultaneously simple and complex with just the skin on their hands.

Clapping Music

Steven Schick (left), Daniel Kennedy, William Winant, and Christopher Froh perform Clapping Music
Photo courtesy Neocles Serafimidis

The Conservatory Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of SFCMP guitarist and professor David Tanenbaum, followed with Electric Counterpoint, featuring conservatory alumnus Travis Andrews performing the solo part. While the piece was originally written for one musician prerecording ten guitar parts and two electric bass parts and then playing the eleventh guitar live in concert, this performance featured Andrews and the two bassists playing electric instruments with twelve members of the ensemble playing acoustic guitars. As the piece is built on a series of canons, the timbral differences between the electric and the acoustic instruments plus the spatial displacement of the electric instruments made for a disjointed listening experience where the various canonic lines (though sensitively played, especially in the second movement) failed to present in a balanced and unified way. At the top of the show, there was an announcement that the sound check had been limited due to a scheduling conflict with the hall, which may have contributed to this issue.

The hour-long Music for 18 Musicians (online score here) filled the rest of the program. I will assume that most NewMusicBox readers are familiar with this massive work, for two string players, two clarinetists, four treble voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and vibraphone. (Schick, on vibraphone, and SFCMP clarinetist Jeff Anderle, a Bay Area new music mainstay, took the cueing roles.) I suspect, too, that most NewMusicBox readers have already formed their own opinions about this piece since its first performance in 1976; for me, working as a production assistant on the 1997 Nonesuch recording of Music for 18 remains one of the greatest fortunes of my musical life, and I count myself among those unabashed lovers of this transcendent work that breathes and pulses like an organism.

There were some balance glitches that may have stemmed from the sound check issue noted above; in particular, the vocalists were often submerged and at points the high frequencies of the xylophones pierced aggressively through the texture. (Nevertheless, high soprano Sara Hagenbuch deserves recognition for her stamina and precision throughout.) Despite these occasional issues, SFCMP and their conservatory cohorts were able to deliver the essential delight of the piece to a hungry audience. One of the joys about experiencing Music for 18 live is being able to observe visually all of the organism’s components interacting, intertwining, handing things off to each other, shifting gears as a unit when a new entity steps into the aural picture. The most memorable moment of the evening came in the transition to Section VI, when Winant, who had been sitting to the side for some sections of the first 25 minutes of the work, stepped to center stage, raised a large set of yellow maracas, and suddenly unleashed a dance party. That was the point when I put the pen and notebook down, and started riding the waves.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s next subscription concert is on Monday, February 25, at Herbst Theatre, featuring world premieres by Mark Applebaum and George Lewis, and works by Paul Dresher, Eve Beglarian, and Stuart Saunders Smith.

ZOFO Champions New Piano-Four-Hands Rep in San Francisco

On January 25, Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi, who perform together as the piano-four-hands ensemble ZOFO, gave an exciting concert of new works at Old First Church in San Francisco (where they are currently artists-in-residence). I thought that forming a piano duet was an interesting choice for two young pianists with successful solo careers, so I asked Eva-Maria Zimmermann for her perspective on what makes piano-four-hands such a compelling experience. She explained:

We often talk about piano duet as “the most intimate form of chamber music.” In “regular” chamber music, the pianist is separated from the other players due to the positioning of the piano, or through the instrument itself. In my experience playing piano quartets, I often felt that the string players had this wonderful circle of communication and that I as a pianist was an outsider—this has nothing to do with personality—it’s just how the players have to be positioned. [There’s] none of that when we play one-piano-four-hands. There’s a very direct communication going on and I feel part of a team as I never did before.

The challenges are that we share the same instrument, i.e. the same keyboard, pedal, and often bench. We have to choreograph almost every movement in order not to bump our hands (or sometimes feet) into each other. Keisuke and I love to think about the best way to move in order to bring out the character of the piece, as well as to make it look beautiful and compelling. The challenge is to move naturally although your space is limited—I sometimes think of figure skating. The slightest imprecision from one partner can destabilize the other partner’s pirouette or jump. For me the great thing of playing with Keisuke is, that—after having rehearsed intensively—I feel completely free in expression and movement in spite of all these challenges.


Photo by Max Kellenberger

Since forming in 2009, ZOFO, which is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra (ZO = 20 and FO = finger orchestra), has already debuted at Carnegie Hall, won a chamber music competition, and signed a multi-disc recording contract. Their first album, Mind Meld, was released in 2012 and received two Grammy nominations, and their second album, titled Mosh Pit, is due out later this spring. In addition to performing existing piano-four-hand repertoire and four-hand transcriptions of other works–Mind Meld featured two original works and two transcriptions, for example–they are also actively commissioning new works for piano-four-hands and this recent concert featured pieces composed especially for them by Stefan Cwik, Gabriela Lena Frank, ZOFO’s Nakagoshi, Nicholas Pavkovic, and Allen Shawn. I reached out to these composers via email before the concert to get their perspectives on composing for, and in some cases performing as part of, this ensemble.

The figure skating metaphor echoes the sentiments of composer Allen Shawn, who compared Zimmermann and Nakagoshi to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. In addition to composing for piano-four-hands Shawn has played much of the ensemble’s repertoire and shared similar thoughts regarding the unique experience of performing on an instrument normally played by oneself. “On the one hand, it is so intimate and wonderful to try to match the tone and articulation of your partner,” he noted, “and to somehow handle the pedaling, and become an ensemble. It is chamber music—but on the same instrument. On the other hand, it is a real challenge to collaborate on an instrument that you are used to playing alone. Suddenly you are playing half a piano, and you are sitting in a different place, and are physically oriented differently.”

Gabriela Lena Frank, an accomplished pianist herself, considered this different physical orientation when composing Sonata Serrana No. 1 for ZOFO. She explained that “one thing that dramatically altered the landscape was the positioning of each pianist high or low on the keyboard. Chord positions normally comfortable when you’re parked in front of middle C become very awkward when you’re to the left or right of it instead. There are also challenges in considering the lack of elbow room sitting in such close proximity to another person–you can’t just take all the space you’d like to getting a running jump on things anymore. And then there’s overall balance of registers–duos quickly sound like solos if you have one person sit out for too long. Yet, having both pianists play all the time usually means all of the registers are being employed which can lend a tiresome sameness to the sound.” Whether it was considering the implications of reduced elbow room or making the switch from composing at the piano to composing for piano, all of the composers talked about making these types of adjustments.


The concert opened with a work by a composer who is undoubtably very familiar with the piano-four-hands medium, ZOFO’s own Keisuke Nakagoshi. His Synæsthesia is a beautiful, evocative work inspired by the synæesthethc abilities of Messiaen and Scriabin, and the presence of both composers is strongly felt. It begins with a quasi-mystical atmosphere—the harmonic language here is reminiscent of Scriabin’s late piano sonatas—with repeated chant-like notes in the middle register alternating with bird call flourishes at the top of the keyboard. After an early climax with huge Messiaen-like stacked sonorities, a consistent pulse emerges while melodic fragments coalesce into an eerie melody. It ends softly with ascending scale figures and a return of the chant-like tones.

In most respects these were the most extraordinary sounds and pianistic textures of the evening, and they were executed brilliantly. Nakagoshi spread his music across the keyboard. Melodic fragments were often enveloped by sustained tones or flourished but were never covered or muddled. Even the most orchestral textures were perfectly balanced. This level of virtuosic playing that was also supple and intimate—every texture clear and focused, every important musical idea projected—continued throughout the evening.

Next on the program was Allen Shawn’s Fantasy. Cast in a broad ternary form, the outer sections are by turns dark, wistful, and poignant while the contrasting middle section is more rhythmic, with macabre march-like figures and a hint of menacing dance band cacophony. Shawn wrote that his music has become “darker more of the time, more introspective” over the years and Fantasy definitely feels weighed down by struggle or stress. The work is unified by two nostalgic melodies—Shawn described them as “somewhat 19th century–echoes of Schumann or Mahler, perhaps” that reoccur in different contexts throughout the work, and the piece’s impact was due in large part to the different emotional landscapes that result, always clearly emphasized by ZOFO’s balanced and expressive playing. When heard against dissonant harmonic backdrops, the melodic fragments stood out like bewildered children surrounded by chaos and destruction.

Like Shawn, composer Stefan Cwik also used a melodic idea to unify his piece Acrobats, a short, action-packed work consisting of a theme and five variations. As a composer who normally composes at the piano, often using two grand staves, Cwik noted that he took care in making sure he was composing specifically for piano-four-hands. “If the piece was a set of etudes that explored techniques and textures that are only capable with four hands,” he pointed out, “then I would be forced to explore all of the possibilities of four-hand writing.” Explore them he does, and Acrobats is a showcase of what two people can accomplish on the same keyboard–including two changes of position and some plucking under the lid–but it is also a bit disjointed. The seams clearly show despite all the movements being played attaca. The most compelling sections were the second variation where great peals of sound mimic the overtones of large church bells, and the fifth variation where Zimmermann and Nakagoshi trade fleet figures back and forth as if playing tag on the keyboard. Despite its structural shortcomings, it was virtuosic and exciting.

Marantz Vorsetzer

Marantz Pianocorder Vorsetzer, the machine for which Chimera was originally composed.

After the break came Nicholas Pavkovic’s Chimera, originally written for performance on piano by the Marantz Pianocorder Vorsetzer, a device that turns any piano into a player piano. After hearing the original work, titled Contraption No. 1, Nakagoshi commissioned an arrangement for piano-four-hands. “Of course there was no notation at that point,” Pavkovic wrote, “and since I had simply flung notes around with abandon when creating the piece, it sounded rather fiercely unplayable. But I did manage to tame it into a format that 20 fingers could manage.” Pavkovic was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, in which a young woman’s struggle for class equality is undermined by her robot doppelganger. His program note explained that “Chimera is a kind of dialog between rational and irrational elements, fused by common musical material. A lyrical line is cloaked and interrupted by a second, insistent voice of mechanical wildness, a fugue state, a tangle of terrifying, uncontrollable associations and compulsions.”

Many composers who have written for mechanized keyboards have used them to compose complex music beyond the technical limits of humans—many of Nancarrow’s player piano works, or much of Zappa’s Jazz from Hell, for example—but by emphasizing the lyrical, Pavkovic takes a slightly different approach. The work, though difficult, was also intensely rhapsodic. Chimera proceeds in fits and starts with fiendish figures followed by more plangent lyrical melodic fragments—the rational voice lamenting the irrational one. Though certain moments were exciting, like in the middle of the work where repeated figures in the middle of the keyboard were paired with virtuosic melodic fragments and flourishes in the upper register, Chimera seemed too episodic; a series of musical ideas and gestures that almost, but don’t quite, form a convincing whole.

The final piece of the evening was also ZOFO’s first commission, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Sonata Serrana No. 1. It is a brash, vivacious work bursting with rhythmic vitality, and Zimmermann and Nakagoshi tore into it with obvious relish. The first movement, “Allegro Solar,” opens with a big, full-throated theme followed by delicate, scampering material and a rousing close (the loudest ending of the piece, actually). The second movement, “Scherzo Nocturno,” has roiling textures and dense harmonies that evaporate away in a wonderfully quiet, open-ended finish. “Adagio para el Anochecer (Adagio for Dusk)” built quickly to passionate outbursts and just as quickly subsided and closed with searching, repeated notes, like a parent wandering the neighborhood calling for a wayward child at dinnertime.

Preconcert Talk

Preconcert talk (l to r) Keisuke Nakagoshi, Gabriela Lena Frank, Nicholas Pavkovic, Stefan Cwik, and moderator Charlton Lee.

Speaking before the performance, Frank talked about being inspired by Bartók’s “gradations” when using folk material, meaning he sometimes used it in a more abstract sense and other times presented it front and center with little alteration. While Sonata Serrana No. 1 as a whole is influenced by musical elements from Frank’s Peruvian heritage, the final movement, “Karnavalito (Festive Song in the Quechua Indian style),” is the most overtly folkloric–raucous and dance-like with tremendous energy. It had the entire audience moving. After a bluesy call-and-response section between the two pianists, Frank sets up a final push to the end featuring rapid-fire chuta notes—the repeated notes heard in panpipe music—before ending in a wisp of smoke, like a carnival that packs up and steals away in the middle of the night.


If up to this point I haven’t singled out the playing of Zimmermann and Nakagoshi all that much it’s because their performance was so assured, so confident. Their movements were so elegant and without ostentatious showmanship that they, as individual musicians, receded into the background. This was especially pronounced in Nakagoshi and Frank’s pieces, and I was reminded of a quote by the 17th-century Chinese painter Lu Ch’ai, which is one of my favorites: “The end of all method is to seem to have no method.” In their best moments, ZOFO simply disappeared into the music.

During the pre-concert talk Gabriela Lena Frank said that piano-four-hands was an “underdog” ensemble and she especially liked composing for ZOFO for that reason. A unique instrumentation hasn’t stopped other new music ensembles from creating repertoires for themselves, and ZOFO seems to be on that path, too. With outstanding musicians like Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi championing piano-four-hands, perhaps more composers will be encouraged to take up the cause.


Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Open House: Del Sol Days

The Del Sol String Quartet, an integral and seemingly ubiquitous part of the San Francisco Bay Area’s new music community, celebrated its 20th anniversary last month with Del Sol Days, a five-day festival of performances, open rehearsals, and other public events at Z Space, a performance space in the Mission district of San Francisco (formerly Theatre Artaud). Del Sol focuses their repertoire exclusively on contemporary work, and in the week’s three concerts they gave world premieres of four pieces by American composers.

Kate Stenberg, Rick Shinozaki, Charlton Lee and Kathryn Bates Williams (left to right), performing in front of a set by Nick Noyes Architecture

Kate Stenberg, Rick Shinozaki, Charlton Lee, and Kathryn Bates Williams (left to right), performing in front of a set by Nick Noyes Architecture.

Del Sol was founded in 1992 by violist Charlton Lee, with current first violinist Kate Stenberg joining shortly afterwards in 1995. Violinist Rick Shinozaki has been a part of the group’s growth for nearly a decade; the most recent addition of cellist Kathryn Bates Williams happened in 2010. All four have deep roots in the San Francisco area: the three longstanding members are Bay Area natives, and three are also alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory. Given their frequent appearances in the area–whether at the Other Minds Festival, at this year’s Cabrillo Festival, at Oakland’s Garden of Memory, at the Switchboard Festival, collaborating with local dance companies and other Bay Area musicians, and so on–it can be easy to take Del Sol’s presence for granted. Del Sol Days was a welcome opportunity to be reminded that this consistently hard-working ensemble has been doing a yeoman’s job in our musical community for two decades now.

Of the three performances, I was able to hear only the closing event on December 8. The performance series had opened on the first night with the first San Francisco appearance of an installation by Santa Fe-based composer and video artist Chris Jonas titled GARDEN, Chapter 1: Night, which enclosed the musicians in four walls of scrims on which images were projected. The scrims were removed and replaced with a set designed by Nick Noyes Architecture on the second night, which followed a more conventional concert format, including premieres of works by Lembit Beecher and Matthew Cmiel, and a work that has been in Del Sol’s active repertoire for many years, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. (Del Sol recorded one movement of this work for their 2008 album Ring of Fire: Music of the Pacific Rim.)

Del Sol String Quartet’s founder and violist Charlton Lee

Del Sol String Quartet’s founder and violist Charlton Lee.

It was immediately apparent from the start of the third evening that Del Sol considered themselves among friends, and indeed many in the audience knew each other and were excited to be celebrating this anniversary with the quartet. Cmiel, himself a local fixture whose work Invocation had been premiered the night before, welcomed the audience with a casual spoken introduction, and during the concert each musician had an opportunity to take the mic to address the audience directly with reflections on the group’s history and personal commentary on the repertoire they were performing.

The evening’s program began with two world premieres, by San Francisco-based Irene Sazer and Bay Area-born Dylan Mattingly. In her work Thunder, Sazer, who is a founder of both the Turtle Island and Real Vocal String Quartets, asks Del Sol to vocalize on phonemes and sing simple melodies while playing, as Real Vocal is accustomed to doing. (Del Sol has been asked to multitask before: in a work by Ken Ueno premiered at this year’s Other Minds Festival, Lee is charged with overtone singing while playing; in Chinary Ung’s Spiral X: “In Memoriam”, also on Ring of Fire, the musicians sing, whistle, and shout precisely notated material as well.) In introducing Gone, Gone, Gone, Lee noted that they first worked with now 21-year-old Mattingly when he was a child participant in Del Sol’s QuartetFest, a chamber music workshop for young string players that has been running for 16 years. In this new work, Mattingly mines the legacy of American folk music for harmonic and melodic material, weaving it into a broad landscape of sustained chords reminiscent of mentor John Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity to open the piece and ebulliently cascading lines to close.

Del Sol then reprised Bagatelles by Oakland resident Mason Bates, which they had premiered at this past summer’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. Bates sampled the musicians in a studio making “all manner of strange sounds” as he writes in the program notes, and processed the samples to create the beat-heavy electronic backing track for three of the four short movements. A video of the second and fourth movements, “Scrapyard Exotica” and “Viscera,” previewed at a Grantmakers in the Arts conference, can be seen below, starting at 6:00.

The second half of the program featured Bay Area didjeridu player Stephen Kent, who has collaborated with Del Sol on Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16. Kent and the quartet performed this work in 2007 at the Library of Congress (certainly Stradivarius could never have imagined the didjeridu’s overtones vibrating the wood in his instruments) and recorded one movement for Ring of Fire. After a brief solo set in which Kent played didjeridu while singing and ringing wind chimes, Kent gave an impassioned introduction to Sculthorpe’s work, which was written in response to the humanitarian crisis that has developed in Australia due to the flight of Afghan refugees (PDF) seeking asylum. (In August alone nearly 2,000 Afghans arrived in Australia by boat.)

Stephen Kent, didjeridu, performing Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16 with Del Sol

Stephen Kent, didjeridu, performing Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16 with Del Sol

This was both Del Sol’s cleanest and most emotionally charged playing of the evening, with Kent’s variously sized didjeridus sounding like animalistic spirits pervading the Afghan love song on which three of the five movements are based. The first four movements, titled “Loneliness,” “Anger,” “Yearning,” and “Trauma,” are heartrending in their despair, but Sculthorpe closes the work with “Freedom,” giving the first violin a soaring melody which flies unfettered above the Australian expanse provided by the didjeridu’s drone.

San Francisco Sampler: Chamber Music Day

Taraneh Hemami’s installation FREE at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Taraneh Hemami’s installation FREE at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

By a happy coincidence, the large neon and steel installation by Iranian-born, San Francisco-based visual artist Taraneh Hemami titled FREE (which celebrates the transformative events of Arab Spring with text in both English and Arabic) was hanging over the lobby of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts during Chamber Music Day, a free seven-hour extravaganza of performances. Chamber Music Day is an annual event that the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music has been putting on since 2008, in a different venue each year. This year’s event, co-presented by YBCA, took advantage of multiple spaces in the arts center, using both the main theater (best known to the outside world for the many Apple products launched from its stage) and the multi-use Forum, as well as a screening room, a lounge, and lobby spaces, for performances and demonstrations for seven hours on a Sunday afternoon. Audience members were encouraged to shuttle freely among the forty or so scheduled performances, which took place throughout the campus in short 20- to 30-minute concurrent sets. By lowering the barriers of cost, time, and distance, Chamber Music Day offers a zero-commitment way for audiences to hear a wide variety of Bay Area musicians, including those they aren’t familiar with.

While there is plenty of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms to be heard during Chamber Music Day, the event specifically aims to include music beyond those expected boundaries, identifying early and baroque, classical, contemporary, improvisation, and world/jazz as subcategories for the day. Given YBCA’s multidisciplinary interests as a center for visual as well as performing arts, this year’s Chamber Music Day (November 18) also included a full afternoon’s slate of short films with live musical accompaniment, in most cases by the composers themselves.

The Living Earth Show, performing Adrian Knight’s Family Man in the YBCA Forum

The Living Earth Show, performing Adrian Knight’s Family Man in the YBCA Forum.

“I just can’t stand what passes for music by most modern composers. Noise is noise from a car, bus, or flute. Still, I loved the traditional music and that odd little piece about the bird.” –Ralph (from the SF Friends of Chamber Music’s refreshingly frank audience comments page)

Among the first things I heard that afternoon was a performance of John Cage’s Concerto for Piano given by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and before I encountered a single note of Beethoven. Among those included under the contemporary, improvised, and jazz music umbrellas at Chamber Music Day were guitarist/composer John Shiurba’s 8@8 project, excerpts from Francis Wong’s Diaspora Tale #2, guitar and percussion duo The Living Earth Show, Beth Custer’s clarinet quartet Clarinet Thing, and Grosse Abfahrt, an improvisation by six musicians led by trumpeter Tom Djll, which seamlessly melded electronic and acoustic sounds. Particularly entertaining was a set by WiENER KiDS, a jazz trio of two saxophonists and drummer, and composer Jordan Glenn, who introduced a gentle, intimate piece by saying they were about to play “a ballad called My Bike.”

Vocallective, performing Osvaldo Golijov’s Lua descolorida

Vocallective, performing Osvaldo Golijov’s Lua descolorida.

Given the multiple performance spaces, it was of course possible to hear only a small selection of the day’s offerings. Among those performers working with fully notated contemporary music was Vocallective, a group of young musicians recently founded by clear-voiced soprano Indre Viskontas, performing a set of three works by Osvaldo Golijov, including two pieces for soprano and chamber ensemble and Tenebrae for string quartet. San Francisco Performances, one of the Bay Area’s premiere presenters of chamber music, also brought mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm, a San Francisco Opera young artist, into the theater to reprise some selections from Jake Heggie’s song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire which she had performed at a recent salon performance.

Regina Schaffer and Sarah Cahill (L-R) playing Terry Riley in the YBCA Lam Research Theater (with composer Luciano Chessa, who was called up from the audience to fill in for an absent page turner)

Regina Schaffer and Sarah Cahill (L-R) playing Terry Riley in the YBCA Lam Research Theater (with composer Luciano Chessa, who was called up from the audience to fill in for an absent page turner.)

Towards the end of the day, Sarah Cahill and Regina Schaffer took the stage in the theater to perform two four-hand piano works that Cahill had commissioned from Terry Riley, Waltz for Charismas and Etude from the Old Country. Cahill and Schaffer have been programming these works regularly in concert and are preparing to release recordings. Cahill introduced them by reading a brief note from Riley about the pieces:

In the days before radio and television, homes across the United States had pianos in the parlour, and families entertained themselves with music for four hands at one piano. My new four-hand piano works were written in the hope that people will throw their televisions out the window and return to activities that will bring spirit, content and meaning to their lives.

Of course, it would take some serious chops to play these challenging and passionate pieces in one’s parlor, and I was happy to sit back and allow Cahill and Schaffer to bring their spirited performance to my ears.



Clerestory in the Fleet Room at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

For all the undeniable benefits of bringing audiences into a space to hear music they wouldn’t necessarily encounter on their own, a lively, unfettered, and varied event like Chamber Music Day does pose some challenges for both performers and audiences. For the musician, the quick turnovers between sets and limited time for sound checks occasionally did not benefit the performances; and from the listener’s standpoint, the constant movement of audience members and the brevity of the sets sometimes made it difficult to focus one’s ears, especially for quieter performances.

Fortunately I had had the opportunity to hear Clerestory, a men’s unaccompanied vocal ensemble, perform their Chamber Music Day set as part of a solo concert earlier this fall in a more controlled setting. This finely tuned ensemble, which includes countertenors singing up into soprano range, was formed in 2006 by Jesse Antin, a alumnus of Chanticleer. (Nearly all of Clerestory’s other singers have spent some time with Chanticleer as well.)

Clerestory opened their seventh season this fall with their first-ever commission, a 25-minute cycle of six Herman Melville poetry settings by Seattle composer Eric Banks titled These Oceans Vast, which was the centerpiece of a sea-themed program. (All of the concerts were presented in venues with broad views of the ocean and San Francisco Bay.) Throughout much of the work, Banks uses either small repeating gestures or stacked clusters to establish a slowly undulating bed over which the text is delivered, sometimes in melodies delivered by one or two singers, and in the particularly successful second movement, in a close four-part canon through which the sailor narrator’s mind tries to brush away fear by nervously chattering “Give me the nerve… Give me the calm.” Banks saves a rare moment of homophony until the end of the fourth song, where the narrator, full of yearning for his beloved at this point in his long voyage, calls out, “O love, O love, these oceans vast!”

Clerestory (pronounced “clear story,” referring to high cathedral windows) has built their audience in part over the years by generously posting recordings of all their concert programs on their website. These Oceans Vast can be streamed in its entirety or downloaded here.