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Souvenirs of Spirituality

April 29, 2008

On Sunday afternoon, as part of the Noe Valley Chamber Music series, a small gathering in San Francisco was treated to "Traveling Polyhymnia," a program of chamber music assembled by the Adorno Ensemble. The program was promoted as presenting "journeys on a sacred path with sounds of the spirit from Buddhism to Azerbaijani culture." True to its promise, the concert took its audience on a whirlwind world tour through works by Chinese-American composer Zhou Long, Argentinian-Jewish Osvaldo Golijov, native Californian Kurt Erickson, and Azerbaijani-born (and Berlin-based) Franghiz Ali-Zadeh.
Bassist Bill Everett explained that the title of the opening piece, Long's work Ding (1990), is a Chinese rendering of a Sanskrit term meaning "meditation on a single object." I would not have guessed that from the piece. Rather than focus on a limited number of musical ideas, Ding wove a fascinating tapestry of sound — an impressive feat, given the sparse scoring for clarinet, bass, and percussion. All three of the work's performers put on a show in extracting varied, unpredictable sounds from their instruments.

Adorno Ensemble

Photo by Bob Adler

The piece had a discernible but enigmatic shape, beginning with erratically disjointed notes that congealed into tangible melodies before dissipating into silence at the end. The "single idea" being contemplated was, however, never apparent, hovering only in (and thus greatly stimulating) the imagination.

Golijov's K'vakarat (1994) used quite different means to evoke "spirituality," relying not on mystery but on melodrama. The piece is scored for string quartet and clarinet, with the latter serving as an abstract cantor. Rather than intimating the divine through obscurity and contemplation, K'vakarat spelled everything out with mundanely legible devices, such as dramatic swells of dynamics, impassioned half-step sighs, and a cello drone that provided a cliched aura of mysticism.

The gods were truly watching over the performance: In the piece's climax, a wrenching tutti crescendo is abruptly cut off, leaving a moment of silence that was filled with the chirping of birds from outside the building — a sign of some distant Elysium, right on cue.
Seeking the Divine Through Music
The first half of the program thus demonstrated different approaches to musical spirituality, with Ding depicting the divine as it seems it ought to be (abstract, unseen, something that can only be intuited) and K'vakarat leaving little to the imagination, leading the audience through a clearly defined, even scripted path. (Golijov, you might recall, is best known for his monumental setting of the St. Mark Passion, a text he read for the first time, as he happily admitted, only after receiving the commission for the piece in 2000.) If the latter approach seems impoverished, it has nonetheless proven a successful gimmick in classical music, as musicologist Richard Taruskin has recently pointed out.

This was confirmed in the program's second half, which began with Erickson's Faith (1996) for violin, piano, and percussion. In a program note by the composer, read aloud to the audience, Erickson stated that Faith was initially inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic friar for whom San Francisco is named. However, he went on to note, it is not necessary to hear the piece as an expression of any explicitly religious meanings, and its general theme (of renunciation and sacrifice) is appealing enough in its own right.

Sure enough, there was little in the work's sugary lushness that made me think of the divine. Pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi and violinist Cynthia Mei played with a rhapsodic lyricism that was genuinely moving but that quickly got lost in the music's indulgent melodrama. The piece concluded with a Chopinesque coda that lasted for almost half as long as the entire work.

Neither the program notes nor the performers provided any explanation of what, exactly, makes Ali-Zadeh's Aspheron Quintet "spiritual." Of the four works, in fact, Ali-Zadeh's (composed in 1994) had the most dryly modernist titles, with movements labeled "Tactile Time" and "Reverse Time." I was left to wonder, rather uncomfortably, whether the Adorno had deemed the piece "spiritual" simply because it was written by an Azerbaijani composer.
A Listenable Exoticism
The piece had plenty to offer those listeners who are excited by the sounds of the exotic East. It calls for string quartet (with amplified violin) and prepared piano, the latter providing the kinds of percussive jangles and pings commonly associated with Eastern music. In the first movement, the piano provided a steady ostinato over which the strings layered sinuous, modal melodies. The second movement featured extended violin solos for Bay Area favorite Graeme Jennings, who did not disappoint.

It was a shame, though, that Adorno's splendid performance was obscured by the kitsch that it offered. The group played with an emotional and musical conviction that is hard to come by in contemporary music. Its members genuinely care about what they play, making their performance a joy to behold.

Yet it was not spirituality that they presented Sunday, but rather souvenirs of spirituality, the kind that a family might display on a fireplace mantel to show that they are cultured and well-traveled. In future programs, I hope the Adorno Ensemble will allow its exceptional musicality to speak for itself.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.