Left Coast Chamber Ensemble | Credit: Bonnie Rae Mills

Among Bay Area music organizations, earning distinction as most adventurous is hard, but Left Coast Chamber Ensemble has done that, as acclaimed by SF Classical Voice readers, among others.

Over 28 years, LCCE has commissioned and performed new works, supported Bay Area composers and musicians, and presented premieres on every concert, thoughtfully paired with beloved classics. And although the pandemic lockdown has again interfered with the timing, the ensemble is still promising a virtual season in 2021 that lives up to its reputation.

One of the big programs in 2021 promises to be “Long Distance Call,” with world-premiere works by Laura Rose Schwartz and Ryan Suleiman that explore long-distance conversations between a piano trio (flute/piccolo, cello, piano) and a distanced soprano. The concert — originally scheduled for January, now postponed to May — includes a piece from George Lewis for flute and electronics and a classic trio for flute, cello, and piano by Louise Farrenc.

For this and the season’s other concerts, the ensemble is determined to continue its mission, in the words of LCCE Managing Director Susan Thieme:

As we approach the beginning of 2021, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will continue streaming virtual concerts for as long as needed. Our audience’s safety is a top priority. We are committed to offering our concerts for free during times of so much uncertainty and will continue to do so until we are through this pandemic.

Even though fundraising today looks different than in the past, we’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity and ongoing interest from the Bay Area music community in what we do. We are grateful to stay in touch with our audience virtually, and it’s wonderful and exciting to meet new patrons from San Francisco and around the country.”

Ryan Suleiman’s piano trio will get a Left Coast premiere | Credit: Phil Daley

The two new works on the “Long Distance” program both use the call-and-response model: In Schwartz’s Parse, the composer explores her personal experience and feelings after a long-term breakup. “Parse is not a breakup description piece. It does not tell the story of that relationship. It does tell my story,” says Schwartz. The three texts of Parse are sung and spoken by Nikki Einfeld. The instrumental ensemble, made up of Leighton Fong (cello), Stacey Pelinka (flute), and guest pianist Allegra Chapman, acts as a mirror to the story text.

Suleiman, a three-time finalist in the ASCAP Young Composer Awards and two-time winner of the FeNAM Student Composers Competition, also draws from his personal experience and feelings for his new composition inspired by Gibran Khalil Gibran’s poem The Robin. “Gibran’s poem for me in 2020 represents a yearning for peace while in a state of isolation and anxiety,” Suleiman says. “This feeling is also reflected in the singer’s situation.”

The piece is created with social distancing measures in mind, written in such a way that the singer is both physically and musically isolated from the instrumentalists. She sings and must wait for a reaction. “During the pandemic we want to gather together, but can’t,” added Suleiman. “In Gibran’s Robin we find beauty, peace, and tranquility. The robin lives gracefully and in the moment. Imagining this robin as I composed has been a kind of balm. I hope it is for the listeners too.”

Left Coast’s virtual season, which had three concerts this year, continues on March 22 (with the promise of an added live concert the day before “if safe to gather”) to present Derek Bermel’s Soul Garden, Nina Shekhar’s new work for two cellos, and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for string septet.

On April 21, Tonia Ko’s commissioned work for viola and electronics will be performed by Left Coasts member Kurt Rohde, for whom it’s written as part of his years-long “farewell tour.” The concert will be presented at 5 p.m. at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Tonia Ko is composing a new work for solo viola and electronics, to be performed by LCCE founder Kurt Rohde on April 21 | Credit: Matt Dine

Ko describes her work, commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, as being “based on the intense protests in Hong Kong, which I experienced when I was home with my family in the summer 2019. I constantly saw footage of a sea of umbrellas out on the streets. For some reason, umbrellas are a big part of life there; my dad even made a movie in the 1990s about a famous umbrella-making business that’s been around for over a century.

“The opening section of the piece is like a bird’s eye view of umbrellas blooming and closing, until we shift perspective to feel and hear the rain. The piece departs from a feeling of coziness and shelter to something more agitated.”

The season ends on June 7 with “Sonic Luxury,” a program of works by Grażyna Bacewicz, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Clara Schumann, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Again, there is a note of cautious hope: “If safe to gather, a live concert will be added Sunday, June 6.

Soprano Nikki Einfeld | Credit: Bonnie Rae Mills

How do the musicians bear up under the relentless burden of our annus horribilis? Soprano Nikki Einfeld told SF Classical Voice about where she is personally and professionally in the continued pandemic:

It has brought a myriad of things to light for me, including moments of deep introspection and challenge. Some moments dark and dreary, and seemingly never ending, yet at the same time I was handed a gift.

The situation slowed me down and made me take stock in what is meaningful. I remember running a lot before. Between things. Between moments on the clock. Rushing to get to the next place while keeping a family running smoothly. Then quite suddenly, the pace slowed, and in the small protective bubble of the family there was less rushing and more time to be quiet and listen.

We have learned to be with each other and to rely on each other for support. Our bubble has provided us with protection and safety, and I am grateful for that in light of the suffering that we have seen. In these past 10 months I have made memories with my two amazing girls: the time we got to spend really getting to know each other, helping each other, and teaching each other, that was a gift. It is a gift.

Making music during this period has been both soothing and painful. Music carries so much emotion and helps me to feel deeply on a different level. Sometimes singing helps me to release something that is stuck, and sometimes it reminds me of the loss that I feel for my musicmaking community. Sharing music is a magical thing and being prevented from sharing [music] with an audience, or collaborating live with an ensemble, has been something I have grieved.

I record the sounds into a tiny glass eye now, trying to imagine how many other eyes will someday be behind that one. Music is still healing, and we are lucky to have it, so I persist. I never thought I would have to learn about audio input, microphones, and video editing, but these are increasingly important skills for a 21st-century musician. I’ll never stop making music, but I look forward to a time when sharing my gift is not a potential ‘super spreader’ event.”

Cellist Leighton Fong says he is persevering by “embracing the discipline that one learns as a cellist and appreciating the humanity of the challenges we all face on a daily basis.” Fong has learned new solo works, biked up and down the Berkeley hills, and taught Zoom lessons.

Cellist Leighton Fong | Credit: Vivian Sachs

“While the tedium remains relentless, my routine has managed to keep me just enough on the right side of the optimism scale. And for inspiration, the few times that I have played for friends in outdoor situations, it has been a real epiphany to witness how much we all miss that connection. This reciprocal appreciation is something to cherish. Hopefully, we will never forget how vital music is to us all.”

Composer Suleiman adds, “When LCCE asked me for a new work, I wasn’t sure whether I had the energy to create something. I’m so grateful that the ensemble reached out to me, because this ended up being a piece I didn’t know I needed to write.

“After the devastating explosion in Beirut (where my dad grew up), which has compounded the political and economic crisis in Lebanon, I felt even more inspired to work with Gibran’s poetry. To honor him, I plan to donate half of performance royalties toward aid efforts in Lebanon.”

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