What happens when ten composers are simultaneously commissioned to write ten different works about the human condition? That question inspired Project TenFourteen, a series of four concerts by San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances. (Ten composers throughout the 2014-15 season.) This Sunday’s concert at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall showcased two Bay-Area composers: Laurie San Martin (on the faculty at UC Davis), and Ken Ueno (UC Berkeley). Their two premieres were paired with well-known works by Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono.
The two premieres were both inspired by death or loss, yet also by the creative act itself, which brings ideas of innovation and endless possibility. The program began with San Martin’s we turn in the night in a circle of fire. It is a four-movement double concerto for chamber ensemble and two exceptional violinists: Gabriela Diaz and Hrabba Atladottir. Steven Schick, the conductor and artistic director of SFCMP, describes the piece in terms of “textural and virtuosic rapport” between the violinists. Meanwhile, the composer herself explained that the title is a translation of a Latin palindrome. The two premieres were both inspired by death or loss, yet also by the creative act itself ...
San Martin has also written that her piece is about memory, and about how memories change over time. It is dedicated to Atladottir, and in memory of the mothers of the composer and the violinist. Certain pitches were drawn from letters in the two mothers’ names. The intricate permutations of these motifs demanded close collaboration between Diaz and Atladottir, who were nonetheless standing on opposite sides of the ensemble. The most intriguing sections were those that explored unpitched or indistinct sounds.
Diaz and Atladottir closed the first half with Nono’s duet, “Hay que caminar” soñando (1989). The Spanish phrase inspired several of Nono’s late works, and loosely means that there are no clear roads by which to travel. This duet is sparse and introspective – the overall dynamics are so soft that it sometimes verges on inaudibility. Nono also requires the two performers to move between three stations – a focus upon space that Schick has attributed to Nono’s experience with electronic music. I was seated on a far side of the hall, and found myself wishing I were instead dead center.
The second half opened with the oldest piece on the program. Berio’s Linea (1937). It was originally intended to accompany dance, but is often performed as a concert work. Instead of a conductor, Kate Campbell fearlessly led the ensemble — consisting of another piano, vibraphone, and marimba — from her piano. Linea plays with color, and it sounded somewhat antiquated compared to the rest of the program. But it was still lovely to hear live.
The final piece was Ueno’s chamber or “pocket” concerto. Zetsu was written with Diaz in mind. The title references a ceramics sculpture housed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: Zetsu no. 8, by Nishida Jun. Ueno wanted to honor Jun’s aesthetic risk taking – the sculptor died in a kiln explosion.
Ueno took a few usical risks including the use of “hookah-sax” (saxophone with plastic tubing in the horn). While the solo violin part is poignant and melodic, it also requires mastery of extended performance techniques. Like a traditional concerto, Zetsu includes a cadenza-like solo passage through which Diaz especially dazzled. The concert left me curious to hear the final installment of Project TenFourteen in March.