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Angels Arrive With the Left Coast

June 3, 2013

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble presented a cello-centric program Monday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Rather than the normal double violins of a string quartet, this time it consisted of double cellos (Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong) paired with violin (Anna Presler) and viola (Kurt Rohde).

The difference is mostly in timbre; the resulting sound is reedy and warm, and the configuration is every bit as viable as a normal string quartet, due to the cello’s wide range and the viola’s versatility.

The best-known Romantic-era piece for such an ensemble is Anton Arensky’s second quartet, made famous by its second movement variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, which has been arranged for string orchestra. This piece, by far the longest (28 minutes) of the concert, closed the evening in an energetic and beautiful reading.

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble concerts typically integrate new music into their programs and situate the classics in terms of the contemporary, instead of the other way around. It was Kurt Rohde’s Three Decimated Bach Chorales, for the Odd Quartet and Electronics that dominated the concert, receiving its world premiere. The three movements were interspersed throughout the program, as opposed to the usual practice of grouping all three movements of a piece together. In effect, the “decimated” chorales framed the entire evening.

The chorales sounded as if they were pulverized into fine dust — small sound bites of Bach chopped almost beyond recognition, but the harmony was still there. Chorales are more about harmony than melody: the vertical and horizontal intervals between the voices. Rohde took these beautiful intervals presumably straight from the chorale and dispersed them among the cellos, viola, violin, and electronic sounds so that the harmony could still be perceived, though through a granulated texture. This texture is achieved through electronic filters and extended technique employed by the live players (for example, playing on or near the bridge, or over the fingerboard to produce raspy or hollow sounds). Instead of any clear melody, the intervals were stretched out with whiny glissandos. Despite the permutations, it still sounded like angels were singing.

Despite the permutations, it still sounded like angels were singing.

This led seamlessly to another piece by Rohde, his …maestoso…misterioso… for amplified violin and viola and assorted objects. Presler joined with the composer to play the mesmerizing piece with a devotion and loving lyricism rarely heard in contemporary music. Violinists are trained on 19th-century music, the epitome of which is late Beethoven quartets. Whereas in the odd quartets he channeled Bach, here Rohde channeled late Beethoven, achieving the same ethereal, almost mystical ambience with slow lines and electronically enhanced textures. In addition to beautiful string playing, the duo also played harmonicas, struck melodic gongs, and even sang. Rohde’s rhythmic surprises and avoidance of a steady meter keep his music sparkling and full of vitality. The high reverb feedback loops in the electronics can sometimes come off as cheesy, yet here it was tastefully done, well-maintained by soundman Sam Nichols on a laptop and a mixing board. Nichols always urged the acoustic violin and viola sound to the forefront.

Ear-Changing

After almost 20 minutes of Rohde, the ears are altered, so Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante suddenly didn’t sound like the gorgeous miracle that it would appear to be in a different context. The well-tempered tuning in the piano sounded jarring after all the glissandos in the previous pieces. With such a drastic realignment of styles, my own ears took a while to adjust to normal tonality. Tomkins joined pianist Eric Zivian in an exuberant performance. The introduction took featured hearty melodies by Tomkins, the Polonaise clicked with virtuosic flourishes by Zivian, and the musical dialogue passed back and forth with an easy joy.

Presler joined with the composer to play the mesmerizing piece with a devotion and loving lyricism rarely heard in contemporary music.

After intermission, bassist Michael Taddei joined Fong and Tomkins in another world premiere: Matt Schumaker’s Nocte Lux, inspired by the graininess of night photography. Schumaker also used granulation in the electronics to produce tiny sound fragments — a technique that’s all the rage in composer circles these days. The live players responded in tight counterpoint with some otherworldly sounds from the computer processing.

In a surprise not mentioned in the program, two youthful composers from the John Adams Young Composers Program at the Crowden Center for Music in the Community were featured: Theo Haber, whose Jazz Parody turned out to be a bright, light romp with a bluesy progression and effortless playing by flutist Stacey Pelinka; and Anaïs Azul, whose Cascades and Canyons came across as a fun piece with a Latin dance feel. These youngsters are lucky to have musicians of such caliber playing their pieces with so much enthusiasm.

Throughout the concert, it was humble music-making on stage, rather than egos on display, as is often the case with important touring performers who swoop into town, play, and dash off. These were local musicians playing at a small venue for an appreciative and familiar crowd — not that the Left Coast players shouldn’t also tour. Indeed, Europe and the East Coast could stand to enjoy the collegial and innovative attitude of musicians here in the Bay Area.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.

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