March 5, 2010

Drinking in a Perfect Blend

Other Minds
By Matthew Cmiel

I would hazard a guess that rarely has a local music festival been so intriguing and provocative as San Francisco’s Other Minds Festival, which is headed by the insightful and interesting Charles Amirkhanian. Last night’s concert at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, which opened the festival’s 15th season, proved no exception to its excellent track record.

If the concert had announced a theme, I would say that it’s “Color and Texture.” The concert was filled with sounds bizarre and with orchestrations that music listeners rarely hear.

The first piece on the program was Jürg Frey’s Streichquartett II. Frey is a Swiss sound artist and minimalist composer. When I think minimalist, or hear the word, my mind immediately turns to Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Arvo Pärt. Frey is like none of them. For him, minimal composition has significantly less going on. Each sonority lasted about a second. The sonorities changed over time, but the pattern did not: sound, rest, sound, rest for a full 30 minutes, never reaching a dynamic above pianissimo. I first experienced the piece as being full of anticipation. I, at least, was waiting to see what Frey would do with this material, expecting a Pärt-like slow crescendo throughout the entire work, or perhaps a gradual morphing of the material.

To my surprise, Frey went completely the other direction; the rhythmic material and the sonority never changed. After I had given up hoping that the piece would develop into something new, my attention waned. Soon, however, each sonority seemed to possess a world inside it, and the beating of each note could be heard in an unusual manner. I found myself constantly checking to make sure that the performers hadn’t changed their bow stroke to a tremolo, or even a trill, as my ears told me they had. I then came to feel I had entered into a state of zenlike meditation.

All About the Details The second piece, by Chou Wen-chung, was titled Twilight Colors. In any other context, it would have been considered incredibly subtle, but following the Frey it felt almost Mahlerian in structure. In another example of how powerful texture and color can be, the work was composed for three strings plus three winds, and never did it seem that a sonority was used twice. Every moment of the piece inhabited a detail-oriented sound world. No doubling or group of instruments was playing without a great amount of care and thought going into how they would interact sonically. The piece, from this perspective, was both beautiful and alluring, though I felt it was lacking in large structure. Canons and inversion games were inserted on a small scale, yet there was only one moment that could be called a climax.

The third piece played was a smaller piece for solo piano. by the same composer. Interestingly, in this work I felt that the structure was perfect. Perhaps because it was shorter (six minutes), it didn’t need the large-scale structure I thought the previous piece lacked. The soloist, Eva-Maria Zimmerman, is a phenomenal pianist who brought a life and vibrancy to the performance that made it quite accessible.

Yet another solo work was by Lisa Bielawa, who wrote a solo piece for Carla Kihlstadt that requires her to sing and play violin simultaneously. The text is drawn from Franz Kafka, using what Bielawa considers to be some of his most personal works: his fragments. This was my fourth time hearing the piece live, and every time I hear it I perceive new beauty in it. The combination of Kihlstadt’s violin with her soprano is both haunting and riveting. The two instruments become one unified instrument: that of an amped-up, texturally various, beautifully transcendent Kihlstadt.

The piece opens with a violin solo (the violin writing, I believe, has its roots in a folk style of playing, though the harmonic language is certainly far from that) that heads slowly up in the register until it begins sustaining powerful notes. When the voice enters, you can’t tell voice from violin. The blend is beyond perfect. It was unity, and it made the perfect ending for a fascinating concert experience.

Matthew Cmiel holds degrees in composition from The Curtis Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received numerous commissions, including one from Maestra Marin Alsop for the Cabrillo New Music Festival. Founder of the ensemble Formerly Known as Classical and The Hot Air Music Festival, he is currently the Director of Orchestras at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and co-director of the ensemble After Everything.