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The Unbearable Lightness of Music

March 27, 2007

To say we heard Martin Fröst play the clarinet at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre on Thursday would be an understatement. We came to see his San Francisco Performances debut, and in return he made us see how music can defy gravity. Fröst is a virtuoso with the instrument, and his sound, always miraculously well-tuned, can soar effortlessly and beautifully, thanks in part to a gently stifled tone that, over inhuman stretches, is unbroken by audible breathing.

But with Fröst, seeing, not just hearing, is believing. His body is in constant motion, punctuating musical points, staying light on the feet while doing things only the agile and athletic attempt. He can mime; he can moonwalk; he can swivel on a feather. With such movements Fröst attempts an innovative integration of sight and sound in his updating of contemporary as well as older fare. Even in the several short pieces by Robert Schumann that Fröst played, he dramatized practically every musical phrase with motion. He cycled through a limited, vaguely robotic vocabulary of moves like the flute-playing Native American deity: Kokopelli left, Kokopelli right, hunch and stretch, toe point here and there, swivel here and crank there.

Yet it was both fascinating and tiresome to watch Fröst charade-play the invisible lines of turbulent Romanticism. In Schumann's Op. 73 Fantasiestucke, for instance, the motoric dramatizations were misleading: Fröst’s (and accompanist Roland Pöntinen’s) phrasing was in reality rather bland, never careening to the brink of passion nor heating up above a mezzo-forte. Everything was unruffled, floating in time. The Swedish duo was lyrical in Dein Angesicht, but missed the humorous bumptiousness of the opening dance of Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102. Here the lack of a strong and full tone from either instrument left the music ungrounded.

Showy Birds of a Feather

Often the unbroken flow of the music proved intense. Indeed, the entire program seemed designed to maximize flow, nearly without pause from composer to composer, as if music was never meant to alight. The seamless sets drew together pieces that spanned the ages, alternating Schumann character pieces and song transcriptions with various newer pieces on bird themes. On his own, for instance, Pöntinen played solo works of Ravel (“Oiseaux tristes” from Miroirs) and Messiaen (Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux) with dexterity and sweetness, if shortchanging the vital splash of color in the latter. The focus, however, was on Fröst and several contemporary works for clarinet alone. Two of them, “Peacock” and “Peacock Songs,” were basically chunks of a 1998 clarinet concerto by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg.

Stylistically, the concerto is a spellbinding smorgasbord, with outbreaks of pop rhythms, a few minimalist passages, and more, cycling back to basic arpeggios linked directly, at one moment, to a quote from Puccini. (Quotations are not new to Hillborg — his orchestral piece Exquisite Corpse weaves together a number of borrowed chunks — but another SFCV regular tells me the Puccini was an ad lib interjected by Fröst, the concerto’s dedicatee.) Fröst donned a peacock mask, too, playing with virtuosity (including especially deft glissandi) but dancing with herky-jerky choreography, as if to say this peacock was a slick but unsuccessful plume-spreader, after all. In this and in Frederik Högberg’s Invisible Duet, another dramatic display of the clarinet's virtuosic plumage, Fröst showed great timing to coordinate with an electronic tape accompaniment. The latter piece also showed him dancing on video on a giant screen while he mimed a parallel story onstage.

This solo, and Fröst’s own showpiece, Human Wing, reinforced the avian theme: freedom and lightness of tone, body, and spirit. Fröst's music was mostly gimmicky, with a vibraphone effect here and a breathy, bebop trumpet there. It underscored the excessive gentleness of his playing, which broke through briefly in Messiaen’s impassioned “Abime des Oiseaux” from the Quartet for the End of Time, and in a triumphant Szardas encore that zipped along with some deft double-tonguing. Even this last dazzling showpiece, though, seemed only to prove that Martin Fröst could stand to spend more time with two feet planted on the ground, his clarinet bearing the glorious weight of musical adventure.

Jeff Rosenfeld is an oboist with the Kensington Symphony and other Bay Area ensembles.
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