Composers, Inc. is a San Francisco-based nonprofit (501(c)(3)) organization dedicated to presenting the works of living American composers. They offer concerts regularly at Old First Church in conjunction with the Old First Concerts series. Last night was my first opportunity to hear them in action, and it turned out to be a fortuitous occasion. The title of the event was Locals Only, meaning that all of the composers on the program were from the Bay Area. There were seven of them, whose work covered the time period from 1997 to 2010. There was considerable diversity with much to engage the serious listener.
The program opened with “Cluck Old Hen Variations,” a violin solo composed by David A. Jaffe in 2004. It was premiered in 2007 by Ann Elliott-Goldschmid, who traveled down from British Columbia to give last night’s performance. “Cluck Old Hen” is the name of an Appalachian banjo tune; and Jaffe’s program note explained that the composition was more fantasy than variation form. Thus, the theme is never given an explicit statement; and the fantasy amounts to a confrontation between bluegrass style and virtuosic modernism. This is somewhat in the spirit of Frederic Rzewski (as in his Four North American Ballads); but it also gives the impression of how Eugène Ysaÿe would have approached one of his solo violin sonatas had he been exposed to bluegrass. (Remember what he did to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 solo partita.) Elliot-Goldschmid had a confident command over all of the intricacies of Jaffe’s score, getting the evening off to a lively and engaging start.
Energy levels were maintained (along with a preference for strings) in the following selection, “Collapsing Obsidian Suns,” by Nicholas Vasallo. This title comes from words from the song “Cascading Down,” recorded by the metal band Hacksaw to the Throat, whose members had played with Vasallo in the earlier band Antagony. “Collapsing Obsidian Suns” was composed in 2009 and scored for string trio. It was performed last night by the members of the Bridge Virtuosi trio, Wei He (violin), Yun-Jie Liu (viola), and Amos Yang (cello). The composition involved a shift from the extreme dynamics of the metal movement to extreme virtuosity that captured both the rhythmic intensity and the wailing melodic lines of that movement. This was not modern chamber music pretending to be metal. It had its own unique voice from a composer equally comfortable in both worlds, and the Bridge Virtuosi gave a spirited and highly appealing account of that voice.
Stephanie Webster took a great risk in naming her composition after a medical malady, although many of us are less likely to associate the title “Agues” with the night sweats brought on by malaria and more familiar with the name “Sir Andrew Aguecheek” from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This is a recent composition by Webster, who is finishing her undergraduate degree in Music at Saint Mary’s College; and it is a trio scored for oboe (Mingjia Liu), violin (Phillip Santos), and percussion (Jack Van Geem). There is nothing sickly about the music. Rather, it emerged as the interplay among significantly different sonorities, even in the percussion part, which required alternating between vibraphone and marimba. The result was imaginative and well worth an opportunity for subsequent listening.
The first half of the program concluded with West Coast premiere of a setting of the Nicene Creed of the mass text, scored for a cappella choir by Frank La Rocca. This was probably the most traditional work of the evening, involving a sparing but highly sensitive approach to the use of dissonance. The work is low-key, very much in the spirit of how the Credo text might be chanted during the mass service. However, the words are endowed with signification beyond the source ritual through subtle shifts in both dynamics and harmonies. For this performance Jonathan Dimmock directed his Artists’ Vocal Ensemble (AVE) with a keen awareness of those subtleties.
After the intermission the Bridge Virtuosi returned, this time with violinist Alicia Yang (wife of cellist Amos) to perform “Open,” a 2010 string quartet by Belinda Reynolds, written for the Cecilia String Quartet, which won the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition. The music takes an innovative approach to ostinato, maintaining repeated patterns but shifting contexts to make the iterations sound less repetitive. As a result the repetitions tend to migrate through phases, rather in the spirit of some of the early chamber music of Steve Reich but with a decidedly unique voice.
This was followed by “La Mere,” an early work by Ken Ueno composed in 2000. Ueno wins the prize for preferring cute to informative. All his program note says about the music is that it “is NOT a Debussy reference.” Perhaps this was intended to reflect the Zen philosophy that a painting is defined by the blank spaces, rather than by the pigment of the brush strokes. However, there were few blank spaces in this work scored for flute (Tod Brody) and marimba (Van Geem). For that matter there was not much balance, as the marimba part afforded little opportunity to attend to the flute part as anything other than a thick texture of rapid passages. This may not have been the longest work on the program in clock time, but it was definitely overly lengthy in subjective time. I doubt that anyone would associate it with Debussy, but I am more concerned about the mindset of anyone who would associate it with motherhood.
The evening concluded with the oldest work on the program. Mark Applebaum composed “Catfish” in 1997, originally intending it as the overture to a dramatic oratorio. He later abandoned the oratorio but kept the overture. It is scored for three percussionists and was performed by Van Geem along with Andy Meyerson and Douglas Chin. Each performer is responsible for a different percussive material: metal (Meyerson), wood (Chin), skin (Van Geem). Each performer has three instruments pitched high, middle, and low. The score is highly polyrhythmic and explores the potential for modulation of rhythmic patterns. However, there are also clearly defined cadences and a particularly clever coda to get in the “last word.” The performance made for an exhilarating conclusion to an evening of, for the most part, highly engaging diversity.