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Nikki Einfeld and Loren Mach Shine in “Brilliant Palette”

December 8, 2016

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

Like adventurous chefs experimenting with exotic flavors, skilled musicians know that diversifying one’s palette can expand sonic horizons for the better. While most members of Left Coast Chamber Ensemble have been playing together for at least 24 seasons, this weekend the group officially welcomed two new members.

In “Brilliant Palette,” a concert performed Monday evening at San Francisco’s Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion, Left Coast spotlighted Loren Mach, a versatile percussionist, and Nikki Einfeld, a coloratura soprano. With her own musicality smoothly scaling the gamut between subtlety and ferocity, Einfeld especially delivered far more than merely a breath of fresh air.

The program opened and closed with two French fin de siècle song cycles. Even though both narrate love stories, their moods could not differ more dramatically. Ernest Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle narrates a suicide that stems from an abandoned lover’s heartbreak. In La bonne Chanson, by contrast, Gabriel Fauré set nine doting poems by Paul Verlaine for a soprano with whom he was infatuated. Like the ruminations of a one-track mind consumed by love, musical themes recur throughout the nine numbers of Fauré’s intricate work.

Left Coast performed the version of Chausson’s work scored for string quartet, piano, and soprano. As surely as the piece is morosely melancholic, Einfeld managed simultaneously to sound both delicate and intense, floating high pitches with apparent ease while emoting the work’s dark sentiments. By contrast, the group concluded with Fauré’s piece for string quintet, piano, and soprano. Einfeld again particularly shone in the closing number, “L’hiver a cessé.” Fauré’s entire piece was an effusive and affirming end to the evening’s official program.

Left Coast definitely delivered on its motto, “where classical meets contemporary,” by including four works with percussion foregrounding Mach. Perhaps the best-known among them is George Crumb’s Madrigals Book I for soprano, percussion, and bass. Crumb composed this, his first of four Madrigals, in the mid-1960s. Each sets a single line of poetry by the Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca. The work required Mach to treat Michel Taddei’s bass as a percussion instrument, which the audience appreciated. Crumb’s piece also enabled Einfeld and Mach to perform together as Left Coast members for the first time — and together, they singularly conveyed Crumb’s interpretation of Lorca’s evocative “To see you naked is to remember the earth.”

Three additional contemporary works featuring percussion and voice completed the program. After Chausson’s opening Chanson, Mach bravely stepped solo onto the stage to perform two movements from Short Stories, a piece for vibraphone by Martin Matalon, an Argentine-born composer. The contrasting movements allowed Mach to be display both thoughtful lyricism and dizzying virtuosity.

Next, Mach joined forces with cellist Leighton Fong to perform an unusual work by Caroline Shaw, history’s youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Together they performed Boris Kerner (2012), which required Mach to remove his shoes, sit on the floor, and play upon tuned flowerpots. (I do not know precisely how one tunes flowerpots, though I would like to learn.) Kerner is a scientist who studies traffic flow. Perhaps influenced by the reality that slight variations in traffic incidents can yield drastically different results in traffic flow, this piece permutes — via parameters including articulation, orchestration, and tempo — an opening cello theme that the composer herself has likened to Bach’s cello suites.

The entire performance was sufficiently well-received as to compel Left Coast’s newest members to play an encore. Mach and Einfeld performed a work for vibraphone and voice by Stuart Saunders Smith, an American composer and percussionist. Einfeld’s part required her to hum soulfully the entire time. It made for an eerie and intriguing end to the evening.

While introducing the encore, Anna Presler — Left Coast’s principal violinist and artistic director — explained that most members of Left Coast have been playing together for so long that they feel like family. The holiday season especially reminds everyone that families necessarily subsume a mix of personalities. Einfeld might be akin to the delightfully precocious youth amid Left Coast’s burgeoning brood. Judging by “Brilliant Palette,” however, the addition of Mach and Einfeld to Left Coast promises to be — like exotic spices heightening a beloved dish—expansively harmonious.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.