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Musical Mixing Pot

March 11, 2008

In his poem "The Soup," U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic concocted a mordant, macabre "soup of the world." Cockroaches, dirty feet, Stalin's moustache, Hiroshima, and bloody sausages number among the incendiary images in the poem. Can you even dare imagine musical analogs for them?
The Bay Area composer Alden Jenks attempted to do precisely that. He set Simic's text to create a namesake piece for the mezzo-soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai and members of Ensemble Parallèle. Like the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory, Ensemble Parallèle is directed by Nicole Paiement. Both groups numbered among the performers in Saturday's BluePrint concert at the Conservatory's concert hall.

In a sense, Jenks' composition The Soup conveyed the theme of the concert. BluePrint, which has as its mission "building new music for the city," is a new-music concert series in its sixth season. This year's installment was called "Mind the Gap: Bridging Senses, Time, and Cultures." Saturday's concert, "Bridging Cultures," was the third and last of the season. Just as soup is an amalgamation of diverse ingredients within a single pot, so too did this concert seek to blend diverse cultures within one program. To force the analogy still more, real tomato soup was even served at intermission.

The Soup blends and draws on various musical realms, including performance art, jazz, and electroacoustics. Yet while the work might have conveyed the program's theme most overtly or conveniently, other pieces arguably constituted the concert's prime ingredients. For example, the program opened with a piece by Kui Dong, a Beijing-born composer with a doctorate from Stanford who now teaches at Dartmouth College.

Blue Melody (1993) is scored for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello. It was the only piece on the program that did not feature one or more vocalists. But Dong's piece was inspired by vocalists: Chinese women, wearing blue funeral garments, spontaneously singing folk songs together. Dong's piece similarly layers the instrumental voices to create an introspective and seemingly spontaneous — not to mention deeply compelling — piece. It was a hard act to follow.
Lamentation Inspired by Statues
Like Kui Dong, Luciano Chessa is another contemporary composer with local connections. One piece amid the concert's second half was a recitative and aria from his oratorio-in-progress, Urlo impietrato. The oratorio as a whole is based on statues carved by Niccolò dell-Arca that collectively are called Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1463). Chessa explained that while all the statues lament the death of Jesus, individual statues reveal unique expressions.

Britanny Hicks, the soprano for "Recitativo, aria e coro della Vergine," personified one statue. She wore all black, including a veil, as she moved about the hall. Meanwhile, she convincingly sputtered tones somewhere between crying and singing. Aside from theatrical and musical techniques evocative of the 20th-century Italian avant-garde, the aria itself spins over a ground bass, which is a musical way to represent lamentation that has been used by composers for centuries.

One more revenant from Italian music history within Chessa's piece is a four-part madrigal choir. The work also includes a gospel choir, which featured soloist Laurel Duncan Anderson and the UC Davis Gospel Choir. These diverse performers joined the instrumental forces of the New Music Ensemble in an unforgettable union.

Two additional composers with local connections rounded out the program. Calvin Lymos, the director of the UC Davis Gospel Choir, led the group through a psalm setting that he composed. The program concluded with a piece by the late Henry Cowell, who was born in Menlo Park. Three accomplished vocalists joined the New Music Ensemble for this performance of Cowell's Atlantis: Patrice Maginnis, Wendy Hillhouse, and Leroy Kromm.

In the end, the various cultures and performing forces of this BluePrint program ran together, just as various ingredients merge into the liquefied consistency of a soup. In contrast, the apparent preparation and the unyielding execution of the program were solid as a rock. Paiement seems a frighteningly competent, exacting conductor. Like a sorceress with a magic wand over a bubbling cauldron, she skillfully led this concert's fluid forces with her lithe baton. Under her directorship, my anticipation for BluePrint's next season, "The Urgency of Now," is certainly something to keep simmering on the back burner until it begins in October.

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