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Musical Fragrances in the Air

May 6, 2008

On Monday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presented a polished, energetic performance of four colorful recent works by composers from the United States, Argentina, and France.
The most effective of these works was Reynold Tharp's gorgeous San Francisco Night (2007), a premiere which closed the concert's first half. Inspired by a visit to our fair city in 2006 (Tharp was also a doctoral student at UC Berkeley for several years), San Francisco Night is a sensuous evocation of the colors and atmospheres of the Bay Area. Adding trumpet and French horn to the standard Pierrot plus percussion lineup, Tharp conjures an endlessly varying wash of musical fragrances, swirling and reconfiguring like the mists that sweep up over Twin Peaks.

Not content to write textures that are merely interesting or surprising, Tharp concocts sounds that are also ravishing and intoxicating. He has studied in France, and I could hear a strong connection to such French composers as Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen, informed by more recent advances in extended instrumental techniques and the Spectralist school of composition. Like the opening of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé suite, or the birdsong passages of Messiaen, Tharp's textures are full of burbling activity, yet they are also fleet and airy.

In his program notes Tharp mentions that Debussy once said he wished to create "an orchestra without feet" — an apt description of Tharp's orchestration, as well. The music rises and falls, ebbs and flows, but it never lands. Although the work was 15 minutes long, I was so caught up in it that it seemed to be over in an instant, and I wished I could be enveloped in its sensual landscape for far longer.
Jazz Inflections
If Tharp's work could have lasted longer, Frenchman Bruno Montovani's concert-closer Les Danses interrompues (Interrupted dances), composed in 2000, despite some very compelling colors and textures of its own, lasted a bit too long. Abruptly alternating sections of vigorous activity and calm repose, this work included some fresh ideas, such as complex rhythmic unison passages for the entire ensemble, rapidly repeated notes that sped up and slowed down at unexpected rates, and quarter tone–inflected melodies hinting at jazz. After too many iterations, however, these gestures began to grow tiresome and the sudden shifts and juxtapositions that were initially so captivating became predictable. Les Danses interrompues was basically an enjoyable piece, but ran too long to sustain the ideas on which it was based.

Opening the second half, Argentinian Martín Matalon's Formas de arena (Forms of sand) (2001), created surprisingly dark colors with its instrumentation of flute, viola, and harp. Beginning with busy, perpetual-motion rhythms, the piece eventually wound down to a gently hypnotic ending. The brightness of color usually associated with flute and harp was subverted in this work by the frequently percussive use of these instruments, with loud thwacks emanating from the harp, and frequent breath attacks on the flute, like distant drums. These sounds mixed with propulsive viola patterns into a darkly driving texture.

David Felder's partial [dist]res(s)torations (2001-2003) opened the concert with incisive rhythmic unisons and a buoyant first movement. Subsequent movements settled down into more lugubrious textures, and while it contained many compelling and original colors, it never quite lived up to the promise of those exciting opening bars.

Throughout the concert, the performers, under David Milnes' energetic and incisive conducting, played with the precision and intensely focused energy that I have come to expect from this fine ensemble. Flutist Tod Brody and clarinetist Carey Bell stood out for their sharply detailed playing.

Although I have no major objections to any of the pieces presented, for my taste the program did seem somewhat aesthetically homogenous. All the pieces were predominantly concerned with texture and color, and all had a decidedly European stylistic orientation. A piece or two on the program with a different aesthetic angle would have thrown these texture-based pieces into welcome relief.

Jonathan Russell is a professor of musicianship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and music director at First Congregational Church in San Francisco. He is active in the Bay Area as a clarinetist, bass clarinetist, and composer.