Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) concluded their twentieth season with a program featuring new works by its founder Kurt Rohde, Matt Schumaker, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, and two students participating in Crowden Music Center’s John Adams Young Composers Program. The title of the program was Cello Squared!, and there was a clear preference for low strings across almost all of the selections. However, what was most interesting was the role played by electronic equipment for both sampling and synthesis.
Most important, however, was that the audience finally had the opportunity to listen to Rohde’s “…maestoso…misterioso…,” originally intended for performance at the final concert of the last LCCE season. The work was scored for amplified violin and viola (along with “assorted objects”), with amplification enhanced by playback of captured samples. The “assorted objects” consisted of four tuned gongs, harmonicas, and Chinese paper accordions. Both performers (Rohde on viola and LCCE Artistic Director Anna Presler on violin) were also required to vocalize.
In his notes for the program book, Rohde stated that the music was originally intended as a response to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 127 string quartet in E-flat major. “maestoso” refers to the tempo marking of the opening measures of that quartet, a brief series of measures that introduces the Allegro portion of the movement but subsequently intrudes several times on the progress of the Allegro themes. Rohde’s title was intended to denote a transition from that “maestoso” rhetoric, which is both assertive and intrusive, into his own “misterioso” qualities. At the same time, that sense of intrusion is enhanced by both the “assorted objects” and echoes of both performers captured and looped by sampling technology (managed by Sam Nichols).
The performance itself was true to Rohde’s intentions. The “maestoso” passages were far more dissonant than anything found in Opus 127; but they served as a latter-day reflection on that intrusive character that Beethoven had imagined. The result was a back-and-forth interplay between the aggressively “maestoso” and the far quieter “misterioso.” This was all capably executed by both Rohde and Presler, with Nichols controlling the electronics. After a year-long wait, this music definitely lived up to its promise.
The program also offered the world premiere of Rohde’s latest work, “Three Decimated Bach Chorales.” This was scored for “odd quartet and electronics.” The “oddity” of the quartet was its consisting of a single violin and viola (Presler and Rohde) and two cellos (Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong). The source chorales were “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in death’s bonds), “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (Jesus, it is by you that my soul), and “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan!” (what God does is done well). They were distributed throughout the evening’s program, rather than performed consecutively as a group.
Rohde’s approach to “decimation” seems to have been an effort to take Bach’s own chorale prelude technique of elaboration and stand it on its head. I might suggest that his technique was less one of the destructive connotation of “decimation” and more like an autopsy, probing inside the remains of once-living music to explore both what made it tick and how it succumbed. (Granted, this analogy may be a product of watching too many NCIS episodes.) Sometimes the motifs of the sources are clear, but in other settings they are more encrypted. Synthesized electronic sounds were used sparingly and always to set context, never competing with the probing of the chorale themes by the four instruments. This came off as a fascinating approach to retrospection that really ought to be experienced several times before it can be fully appreciated.
The other world premiere of the evening was Schumaker’s “Nocte Lux” (night light). This was scored for two cellos (Tomkins and Fong), double bass (Michael Taddei), and synthesized electronics controlled by Schumaker. True to its title, the work was performed in near darkness. However, while it involved a parade of energetic motifs requiring virtuoso bowing from all three performers, it left the impression of going on too long with its material. Ironically, it was shorter (by about five minutes) than “…maestoso…misterioso…” (which was about twelve minutes long); but it felt decidedly longer, demonstrating that, where raw virtuosity is concerned, more is not always better.
Brevity was better served by the two Crowden students, both of whom knew their limits (probably with Adams’ capable guidance). “Cascade and Canyons,” by Anaís Azul, was a perpetuum mobile in minimalist rhetoric that nicely captured the interplay between the flow and stasis connoted by its title. Theo Haber’s contribution, on the other hand, was entitled “Jazz Parody.” It captured much of the spirit of Adams’ own prankish take on Duke Ellington (the “Sentimentals” movement from his American Standard) but involved a far livelier approach to the eccentric rhythms of bebop as its target. “Cascades and Canyons” was performed by Leighton on cello and Taddei on bass, along with Stacey Pelinka on flute and Eric Zivian on piano. “Jazz Parody” was performed by Pelinka with Taddei and Zivian as her “rhythm section.”
Each half of the program concluded with a nineteenth-century selection. The intermission was preceded by Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 3, his polonaise for cello (Tomkins) and piano (Zivian), preceded by a Lento introduction. The program concluded with the “cello-heavy” Opus 35 string quartet by Anton Arensky, performed by the same “odd quartet” that performed Rohde’s Bach “decimations.”
Neither of these pieces fared particularly well. With its returning references to Russian Orthodox liturgical music, Arensky’s quartet nicely complemented Rohde’s Bach arrangements. However, the intonation of those particularly Russian sonorities tended to be weak, which undermined the composer’s effort to frame the entire composition with the rhetoric of sacred music. The middle movement, a set of nine variations on a theme by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was poorly paced, giving little sense of the logic behind the progression of those variations.
More disappointing, however, was the polonaise. As might be guessed, Chopin required a fair amount of virtuosity from the pianist; but he also made it clear that the pianist was there to accompany the cellist. Zivian caught on to the former, but not the latter. Furthermore, his every musical gesture was reflected by an excess of physical gesture, which may have been intended to recall nineteenth-century keyboard practices but instead resembled many of Leonard Bernstein’s more notorious moments of physical antics at the podium. Sadly, Tomkins seemed to match Zivian’s interest in this physical approach to performing, which established a conflict with her getting solid and well-tuned phrasing out of her instrument. Most importantly, however, none of the lightness of spirit that Chopin intended for what was basically salon music emerged in what came off as leaden execution.