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New, Old, and All Tantalizing

April 6, 2009

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

The Bay Area is fortunate to have a number of ensembles dedicated to new music, each with its own slightly different approach. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble’s spin is to frequently include a couple of old works on their programs alongside the newer ones. When you think about it, this really is a unique approach. Plenty of groups play only new music, and plenty of groups play primarily old music, with a new piece or two thrown in for good measure. But to hear a concert where most music is new, and the old music is the exception, is quite a rare experience. The ways in which these old works rub up against the new ones are often stimulating and thought-provoking, casting the older works in a fresh and surprising light. Monday night’s concert, titled “Four Centuries of French Music,” was no exception. Beginning with a Baroque work, the program then took us to three recent works, and closed with Maurice Ravel’s classic 1903 string quartet.

The concert, held in the boomy Green Room at the War Memorial Building in San Francisco, began with Marin Marais’ Suite No. 1 in D Minor for Guitar and Viola, from 1686. An elegant, Couperinesque work, it featured especially beautiful playing from violist Phyllis Kamrin. She created a superbly rich, clear sound, much of it with little vibrato in the “period performance” style, but most expressive, and that much richer when the vibrato was (sparingly) added. She and guitarist Michael Goldberg, who was unfortunately difficult to hear at times due to the diffuse acoustic of the space, phrased the music artfully, bringing out the dance movements’ lilt and lift.

This was followed by Stephen Feigenbaum’s 2007 work Boiling Point, for string quartet, the winner of this year’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble Composition Contest. Feigenbaum, an undergraduate at Yale (and not French; this just happened to be the concert on which they scheduled the contest winner’s work), had a compelling beginning to his work, with sparse pizzicatos coalescing into a catchy groove. From there, the piece was pleasant enough, with busy washes of consonant harmony, though a bit amorphous and lacking in strong, memorable ideas.

Philippe Bodin’s 2005 string quartet vers le bleu vers le rouge, which followed, was full of interesting textures, varying from busy outbursts to rhythmically driving grooves to gentle chorales, with an excellent sense of drama and pacing throughout. Bodin possesses a unique harmonic palette — often rather dissonant, yet also rich and resonant, and unafraid of the occasional pure triad. The piece featured many busy and complicated textures, with a lot going on, but it always added up to a coherent composite sound. Bodin has the love of rich sonority and beautiful sound characteristic of so much French music (indeed, this was probably the clearest unifying quality among all the pieces on the concert).

The work benefited from a deeply committed performance by Left Coast Artistic Director Anna Pressler and Cynthia Miller Freivogel on violins, Kamrin on viola, and Tanya Tomkins on cello (they also performed the Feigenbaum work). The players successfully propelled the piece through all the different textures, keeping it coherent, and giving a long narrative through-line to the whole work. It was the perfect combination of engaging and enjoyable on first hearing, yet mysterious and elusive enough that I wanted to hear it again right away. I was left thinking about it long after the performance ended.

Next on the program was Francis Kleynjans’ 1980 work A l’Aube du dernier jour for solo guitar. This piece depicts the final moments in the life of a man condemned to death, and is exactly what you might expect from a piece on this subject: ominous ticktock figures like a clock counting down the minutes; skittering tritone leaps depicting the man’s anxiousness; a rising ostinato bass line that keeps recurring, like approaching footsteps; and even the sound of a guillotine falling at the end. Although effective, it held no surprises. Kleynjans is a guitarist himself, and the work made extensive use of virtuoso guitar techniques and effects, all performed quite ably by Michael Goldberg — this time with slight amplification, which might also have served him well for the Marais work.

Hearing a Beloved Voice With Fresh EarsFinally it was time for Ravel, performed by the same players as the previous two string quartets. I had very much been looking forward to this piece, as I have long loved it but had not heard it in quite a while. I was surprised, then, when the first movement sounded strangely dated and stilted to me, like hearing someone speak to you in the manner of a 1940s movie actor. I’d never had this reaction to the quartet before, and I can only conclude that it came across this way as a result of hearing it after the newer works, especially the Bodin quartet, which made Ravel seem sugary and square by comparison.

Over the course of the second movement, I got over this, became absorbed back into Ravel’s universe and language, and ultimately enjoyed the performance thoroughly. Still, I was fascinated by the way that the new music played earlier changed the way I heard the Ravel. It was an extremely colorful rendition of the work, with highly detailed and nuanced playing from the entire quartet. Kamrin was once again outstanding on viola, with beautiful melodies, and an incredibly rich, resonant sound. Freivogel also stood out as an ideal second violinist, most of the time providing committed support for Pressler on first, with a precise, driving sense of rhythm, but not afraid to come out of the texture and take command of the situation when called for.

Although I have no intention of slighting the fine work from Pressler and cellist Tomkins, with such excellent work from second violin and viola, it was a surprisingly and effectively inner-voice-driven performance. Second violin and viola often have the propulsive rhythmic material, the backbone and driving force of the work, and I became far more conscious of the details and importance of these parts than I had ever been.

All in all, it was an enjoyable concert, effectively highlighting the continuing French concern with texture, color, and pure beauty of sound over the centuries, from the elegant minuets of Marais, to the luscious harmonies of Ravel, to the sonic saturation of Bodin. It was also a treat to hear such committed, powerful performances on this diverse and challenging program.

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.