November 17, 2012
BluePrint's Latin Flair
This fall, the San Francisco Conservatory’s BluePrint new-music series focuses on Latin American–inspired works. In general, composers from Latin America have avoided the difficult high modernism that makes much contemporary art music unapproachable. Saturday’s music revealed how Latin American composition does not limit its inspiration to syncopated dance rhythms and Mesoamerican folk music. The four works on Saturday’s program, by Jorge Liderman, Chris Pratorius, Mario Lavista, and Gabriela Lena Frank, were projections of compositional trends in vogue in the mid-1940s.
The concert’s musical highpoint was Lavista’s Cinco Danzas Breves, a 1994 work for wind quintet. I was drawn to this work for its abundance of counterpoint, which is so often absent from contemporary music. The work held onto a solidly five-movement form, with dances based on decidedly non-Mexican medieval models and a finale accomplishing exactly what a finale should accomplish in such a work. The second, slow movement’s tapered phrases came across as runic Respighi. Lavista’s solid and refined structure clearly inspired the instrumentalists to their most musical playing of the evening, which more than adequately compensated for limitations in tone quality.
The student musicians less successfully assimilated Liderman’s Aged Tunes, a 2007 work for guitar and string quartet. Part of this was an insistence on overly legato playing and needlessly long bowings. This, however, was largely accompanimental to the extensive guitar part played by faculty artist David Tanenbaum, for whom the work was written. Liderman’s composition felt idiomatic for the classical guitar, of which Tanenbaum is a first-rate practitioner. In spite of cute touches such as a smooth-jazz radio ending, the piece fell prey to a rambling form and lacked sufficient thematic points of reference to tie it all together.
I was drawn to Lavista’s work for its abundance of counterpoint, which is so often absent from contemporary music.
About 15 years ago, I attended an art song master class given by the great Dutch soprano Elly Ameling. After one soprano’s performance, Ameling’s entire critique was “You know, this really is a man’s song.” Although many works of art successfully challenge gender conventions, I felt that composer Pratorius erred in setting Pablo Neruda’s Poema XX for soprano. The impact of the poem comes, in part, from the emotional outpouring of a man for a lost lover through poetry in which social convention demands reticence from men (call it a Latino male Erwartung). If Neruda had wished to express a woman’s despair over a lost love of any gender, he would have written a different poem.
Soprano Kelly Newberry brought off the premiere of Pratorius’ lucid text setting with cautious restraint and careful diction against an instrumental backdrop that included much effective harp writing. My caution to the singer is that with such passionate discourse, it is OK to appear somewhat disheveled. Faculty conductor Nicole Paiement propelled the work forward with musically sensitive flow, especially in the first third where Pratorius sets up and then discards many accompanimental figures in fits and spurts. The work could use some revision, like, for example, dispensing with both the redundant double ending and a superfluous percussion part. In spite of this, the premiere made a favorable impression on the audience, but I think the work would come across more strongly if scored for a tenor.
Faculty conductor Nicole Paiement propelled the work forward with musically sensitive flow.
Concluding the concert was a 2005 work, Manchay Tiempo, by Berkeley native Frank, whose title I would very loosely translate as “The Hour of the Wolf.” Her work conveys a sense of unease, helped at times by a wind-plate borrowed from the Foley stage to mimic the sound of lonely breezes. Paiement conjured lively phrasing from an otherwise brittle string section.
This composition deserves wider recognition for its musical merits, but I would urge Frank to sanction her composition for larger string forces so that it can serve as a companion to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. This is the only way I see the work succeeding in the long term, because as a chamber orchestra piece it is impractical. Most standing chamber orchestras consist of a string core and a wind component suitable for classical repertory. To perform Frank’s work, a chamber orchestra would have to hire five percussionists, a harpist, and a pianist (typically the most expensive players), rent instruments that the small orchestra is unlikely to own, and pay the winds to lie fallow.
With so much newer music capable of charming audiences and working with, rather than against, the tradition that forms the core repertory, I wonder why these types of music have to be relegated to a bungalow of a concert series on the fringe of a campus. The challenges, after all, are the same as with old music: Play in tune, play in time, learn the piece, play musically, communicate with the audience, and assimilate the style. Still, the BluePrint concert gave me mixed hope that institutions such as the Conservatory will continue to work against a culture of new-music “specialists” and will invite in new works that can find a place in the routine mill of regular concerts.
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