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A Musical Fête for Libby Larsen Missing a Main Course

January 22, 2018

Center for New Music

A lot can be gained by going to the party of someone you don’t really like. They have interesting friends. The food is good, and it’s nice to be social.

Saturday’s party, at the Center for New Music, was for Libby Larsen. Since 2014, the Fête Concert Series has thrown concert parties to celebrate the birthdays of important musicians; each program includes a variety of movements or short works from the given composer’s body of work, as well as a “Happy Birthday” song arranged in the style of the honoree. (Listen to some examples here.)

And Larsen should be honored. Born in 1950, she has accomplished a good deal in her decades-long career. She’s prolific — her catalogue includes more than 500 works — and has written for nearly every genre. She also co-founded what eventually became the American Composers Forum, the largest organization in the country dedicated to the advancement of living composers. Yet a marked conservatism characterized Saturday’s program: the works were undeniably competent, but not great.

Take the first movement from 4½: A Piano Suite. Performed by pianist and Fête Concerts co-founder Paul Dab, it’s jazzy and catchy and pleasant — and, shockingly, written in 2016. The movement is inspired by ’40s dance music, but George Antheil and Johanna Beyer (to name a few) did this kind of thing better a long time ago.

The 2001 trio Black Birds, Red Hills offers more players, but no more complexity. Larsen wrote the movements after blocky Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, and the musical results are obvious.

Dancing Solo (1994) for clarinet is much more interesting (especially as performed by James Pytko, who brought off the piece with dramatic flair). Lyrical episodes in “With Shadows” are intriguingly inconclusive, and though the easy recurring riff in “Flat Out” feels a bit staid, the intervening episodes are harmonically adventurous.

The Viola Sonata, too, has attractive moments. In the slow movement, “Drift,” the viola and piano trade stasis and motion, each voice making room for the other to be heard. It’s a novel texture, and these lyrical exchanges are immediately captivating. Bluesy major-minor harmonies and jolting rhythms make the finale, “Breathless,” dynamic.

Violist Justine Preston, a self-assured performer, maximized the effect of this 2001 work, and she and pianist Dab were a tight pair. Even so, the work is never more than a combination of pleasant sounds. If they were other sounds, less blandly familiar, this music might leave a sharper impression.

Saturday’s highlight was Songs from Letters for soprano (Anne Hepburn Smith) and piano (Dab). Larsen flawlessly sets the text, excerpted from letters written by the 19th-century woman known as “Calamity Jane” (who worked hard at everything from animal husbandry to prostitution). The declamation style is natural and effective, concisely mixing humor and seriousness in fine dramatic fashion. Smith skillfully evoked the different characters of this 1989 work, and Larsen’s music is at its best.

Projections of paintings and photographs, combined with just the right amount of talking, enhanced the music — and there was cake. The “Happy Birthday” tribute, arranged in the style of Larsen by composer-in-residence and Center for New Music curator Emma Logan, was a charming send-off. No one could have made this party better, except maybe a different birthday girl. 

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.