May 20, 2008

Springing to Mind

By Lisa Hirsch

Old First Concerts played host on Sunday to a varied and exhilarating program of chamber music by Stefano Scodanibbio, performed by sfSoundGroup and the composer himself. The concert, sponsored by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of San Francisco, was part of Primavera Italiana: The Spring Festival of Italian New Music, now in its second year.
The five pieces on the program — solo works for contrabass and violin; a string quartet; a piano duet; and a partially improvised piece for diverse instruments — gave the audience a well-rounded look at Scodanibbio's compositional concerns. The composer, a virtuoso contrabass player, has an abiding interest in extending string-playing technique as far as it can be extended, as well as a deep love for older musical forms. And the performances were such that a repeat of any of the pieces would have been greeted with cheering.

The concert opened with Labore navigaciones for two pianos, played by Ann Yi and Christopher Jones. Its Debussy-esque opening of sustained, slowly shifting chords disintegrates, or perhaps unravels, over time, consonance replaced by dissonance, the harmonic motion speeding up, square chords replaced by flurries of notes. Chords that are in phase with each other go subtly out of phase ... and then the piece seemingly reverses itself, simplifying and clarifying, and ends much as it began.

Violinist Graeme Jennings then came on stage and knocked our socks off with My new address, a bravura, and extremely entertaining, 10-minute showpiece of jaw-dropping harmonics, double- and triple-stops, portamenti, and extended bow technique.
Mix and Match
The first half of the program closed with Avvicinamenti (Approaches), a partially improvised work, partially directed by composer Scodanibbio. Because of rehearsal issues, the players — Kyle Bruckmann, oboe; Matt Ingalls, clarinet; John Ingle, alto saxophone; Tom Dambly, trumpet; Kjell Nordenson, percussion; and Christopher Jones, piano — weren't those announced in the program. But the musical materials for the piece, sent in advance by the composer, were adaptable for different combinations of instruments, hence sfSoundGroup adapted to the available players.

The composer signaled when the three main sections of the work started and stopped, occasionally cueing a player, and firmly conducting the close. Between the start and the finish, the players elaborated on the materials the composer provided, which at times created a dense, vibrating wall of sound out of which various solo instruments would emerge.

Written for contrabass in 2007 and performed by the composer, And Roll is built on a structure of a repeated low-note, high-note pattern that is varied and elaborated over time. That brief description almost makes the work sound as if it was written by a minimalist composer, yet the repeating pattern has the sound and feel of the walking bass in an American blues piece, or the repeating ground of a passacaglia or chaconne.

And Roll exploits the extremes of those high and low notes, with much subtle rumbling in the lowest register of the contrabass, and a passage of intense trilling (multiple-string trilling at the high end). At times, the performer must strum and pluck the strings with both hands, as if playing a guitar or harp. The final notes, played pizzicato, had the emotional force of the pizzicato cello and bass notes at the end of the Tristan und Isolde prelude.

Mas lugares (More places), performed by Graeme Jennings and Erik Ulman, violin, Ellen Rose, viola, and Monica Scott, cello, melds old and new in a most astonishing fashion. It incorporates long stretches of music adapted from Monteverdi madrigals and frames the older master's works with thoroughly modern passages. Like And Roll, the opening had some feeling of being built over a repeating bass pattern, which allowed for a smooth segue into the Monteverdi.

Played with limited vibrato, and with at least one member of the quartet almost always playing in harmonics rather than natural tones, the Monteverdi sections of Mas lugares sounded eerily like the ghost of the madrigals, or as if being played from far away or from behind a scrim. And the music composed entirely by Scodanibbio in Mas lugares matches this tone beautifully, with the serenity and sense of stasis of Morton Feldman's music.

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.