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Duo Fascination

July 29, 2008

Billed as "Classics to Moderns" 1910-2008, the duo of Sarn Oliver and Robert Pollock presented a program of solid, if seldom played, masterpieces Sunday at the Berkeley Hillside Club as part of its concert series, in association with Ebb & Flow Arts. Pollock, a composer and pianist and the director of Ebb & Flow Arts in Maui, and Oliver, a first violinist with the San Francisco Symphony, added several works of their own that showed their lineage in the special subset of composers/performers who could add their two cents — or two dollars, adjusted for inflation — to the thoughts of the masters.
Anton Webern's Four Pieces for Violin and Piano from 1910 began the program for me, as I unfortunately arrived late, missing Pollock's performance of his own pieces for piano solo. The Webern, however, was the perfect ear-grabber in its radical use of silence as structural element. All the musical gestures seemed to grow out of the silence of the "rests" and give every utterance a mysterious power.

Master of absolutely motionless sustained tones, Oliver seemed to have an unlimited length of bow as he conjured barely audible wisps of sound, fortissimo pizzicati, harmonics, and other fiddle effects, tossing them off with ease. These were balanced by sounds from the piano literally unheard of before Webern. Pollock played the strident double-forte-sevenths hushed tremolos in the bass to chilling (and thrilling) effect. In this work Webern was revealed to be both a minimalist and a maximalist: Every note counted.

The centerpiece of the program was Roger Sessions' Duo, composed in 1942 while he was teaching at Princeton, shortly before coming to California to teach at UC Berkeley. Sessions' music has long held a special fascination for me, as it resists any effort to pigeonhole or place it in any "school." He was a teacher whose influence on several generations of composers was decisive. Pollock, who studied with him briefly, says that Sessions had an uncanny ability to seize on the crucial points of a musical idea and tell what was wrong or right with it. No piece more fully illustrates the fallacy of the term "atonal" than Duo. It alternates between a freely chromatic style, often mislabeled "atonality," and sections that — although they employ key signatures — leave the listener hard put to identify which key the music is in.

In their performance Pollock and Oliver captured the constant dialogue between the instruments and, above all, the subtlety of phrasing that counts for so much in Sessions' music. Well-known for his insistence on finding the "long line," Sessions challenges performers to declaim their notes always as part of a musical phrase that unfolds naturally only when the performers carefully observe the phrase markings (along with the dynamics) between the two instruments. Although I brought the score along, the performance was so clear I didn't need it. Oliver's polished playing conveyed an aristocratic reserve, eloquently lyrical in the quiet passages and passionately forceful at the climaxes.
Tasty Bits Revealed
Pollock also played an intriguing work by Edward T. Cone, a student of Sessions who eventually joined his teacher on the faculty at Princeton. In its seriousness (and humor), his piano music shows his debt to his mentor. Heard in its first outing here, Sphinxes: 25 Aphorisms for Piano (1974) can be played in any order, and on Sunday Pollock whimsically invited the audience to draw lots to determine how the evening's performance would go. This required a certain amount of faith in the music and in the audience.

Each segment, usually a dozen or so bars long, was like a freshly opened fortune cookie, tasty and revealing an enigmatic message about the possible meaning of music and of life. Pollock played them engagingly and with obvious enjoyment of their quirkiness and quick wit. These are pieces that need to be heard at least a second time, presumably in various orderings, to be fully appreciated.

Sarn Oliver's Sonus for solo violin, and his String Trio, were the first pieces of his I've heard. The first work, a premiere, was played by Mariko Smiley, who captured the various moods and textures, from tenderness to turbulence, that only a piece for solo violin can accomplish. Oliver obviously knows the instrument inside out, and it was probably the first time this side of Ysaÿe that I've heard a piece by a violinist written for the solo instrument.

The Trio, which was ebulliently played by Oliver himself, violinist Amy Hiraga, and violist Victor Romasevitch, was a riot of dancing rhythms and harmonic surprises. It looked like great fun to play, and I look forward to hearing more of Oliver's music.

Concluding the program was Claude Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano, his last finished work. It reflects the composer's vulnerability and courage in the face of the illness that killed him a year later. I was touched by the care and obvious deep rapport between Pollock and Oliver. Especially beautiful were the alternating grim humor and pathos in the Scherzo movement. At first I felt that the piano part was a little too restrained, but as the performance went on, I realized that I was becoming attuned to a new way of hearing Debussy.

Altogether this was a challenging program that came in under the radar of mainstream concert presenters. I hope Pollock and Oliver will perform here again soon. It has taken a long time for the Debussy Sonata to become a classic. Through the efforts of dedicated performers such as these, the music of Sessions and Webern is sure to, as well.

Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who gives lecture/recitals every Friday at the Berkeley Arts festival.