Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I boycotted the last Contemporary Players concert, partly for personal reasons, and partly because the season opener left me feeling so indifferent. This past Monday night, I braved the rainstorm and returned to Yerba Buena for the fourth and penultimate concert of their 2005-06 season. To be honest, I went to hear one piece, Charles Wuorinen's Percussion Quartet, a work written in 1994 but that sounds like good ol' mid-twentieth-century modernism to my ears. That no one (in the program note or pre-concert talk) breathed John Cage's name astonished me; Wuorinen obviously learned well from Cage's Constructions (which date, yes, from the 1930s/40s) where interlocking rhythmic textures require a feisty, high-energy style of playing.

It is precisely that kind of playing that I have found lacking in these concerts--except from the percussionists. They rarely let me down. Christopher Froh brings a refreshing giddiness to every performance, almost effortlessly serving the virtuosic demands of the music. Effortlessness is both a technique and an attitude that all performers of "new music" need to convey. When the player seems at ease, regardless of the flurry of notes, the quick change of sticks, or the fiercely erratic tempi, the listener can make much more "sense" of the music. The performance of the Wuorinen only occasionally demonstrated this; a couple of the players sometimes looked a bit frantic, as if wound a little too tight. (Here again is an instance where I would prefer no conductor; or at least, I would prefer a conductor who didn't contribute to the feeling of being "on the edge" with a challenging piece.) Musically, however, the Wuorinen was the highlight of the evening, with a range-pushing exploration of melody, timbre and texture that matched its rhythmic complexities. (What, do you think drummers just keep a beat?)

Carla Kihlstedt performed what will likely be the concert's most talked about feat, a thoroughly convincing sing-and-play* of San Francisco composer Lisa Bielawa's Kafka Songs. Classical musicians rarely assume dual roles; they tend to stick, like specialists, to the instrument in which they've been trained or schooled. Kihlstedt, a violinist with a varied musical background, was thus the ideal muse for the Kafka Songs, a full-fledged song cycle that the soloist both plays and sings. The miniatures "Couriers," "Ghosts," and "Finally" provided just enough of a tuneful hook or rhythmic beat to balance the more avant-garde vocal music clich├ęs--some of Bjork's recent work came to mind, an association that I attribute more to Kihlstedt's performance style than to the compositions themselves. Other songs tended to meander and only served to remind me that, unlike a classically trained singer, Kihlstedt's voice lacks bloom. (And I do like a voice that blooms...) That aside, she enunciated the texts clearly and navigated a spectrum of violin playing techniques with an ease that wowed the audience. (Oh, I eavesdrop at intermission.)

Julia Wolfe's Dark Full Ride opened the program. This is minimalism at its most predictable, driving and loud but predictable, nonetheless. (Somehow, I never find Steve Reich predictable, but, sigh, that is for another post.) Comprised of mostly the same players as in the Wuorinen, the piece at least allowed drummers to be drummers: the laid-back nodding of heads indicated that they fully enjoyed the ride. Did I? Well, let's just say it was a Long Full Wait for the Wuorinen.

*At the conservatory, my advanced musicianship teacher loved to assign devilish sing-and-plays. Brahms, Ives, Debussy, nothing was off limits. (I actually did feel sorry for the non-keyboardists.) Being a pianist, I received no slack: one mid-term she required me to sing and play Ives' "Maple Leaves." In solfege, natch. Last summer I dedicated a performance of "Memories A" (accompanying myself on toy piano) to her.


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