September 9, 2008
A large, enthusiastic crowd greeted the season opener of the Conservatory Orchestra in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Saturday evening in the school's concert hall. Conductor Andrew Mogrelia built his program around new or relatively new music by two of the Conservatory's resident composer-teachers, Elinor Armer and Conrad Susa. Four highly varied orchestral experiences ensued, aided by no fewer than nine soloists.
Two Armer works occupied the first half: her Call of the West (2007) and the premiere of her new Piano Concerto, featuring pianist Lois Brandwynne. The second portion of the evening was devoted to Act 1, Scene 1 and the Act 3 Epilogue from Susa's 1994 opera The Dangerous Liaisons. Soloists included eight talented Conservatory students: sopranos Katie Gerber, Emma McNairy, and Jennifer Panara; alto Jessica Winn; tenors A. J. Glueckert and Jeremy Kreamer; and basses William O'Neill and Jefferson Taylor. Rounding off the event was the West Coast premiere of Susa's 12-minute orchestral tone poem, The Blue Hour (2004).
Armer wrote her 14-minute, four-movement Call of the West for last year's Greek tour of the Oakland Youth Orchestra under conductor Michael Morgan. It constitutes a kind of California travelogue, strolling from east to west. The first movement is titled "Mountain Sunrise," and is followed by "Valley Heat," "City Beat," and a gentle, hymn-like seascape called "Pacific Nights."
The work is largely Romantic-tonal in style — after all, it's for youths. Armer added just a few kinky modern touches to her instrumentation: metal wind chimes, brass instruments blowing pitchless gusts through their instruments, and gales of percussion. For me, the first two sections exceeded the inspirations of the second two. Those jazzy licks in "City Beat" seemed awfully forced and ineffective to my ears. European and American composers alike had a craze for symphonic forays into jazz idioms 80 years ago, but the only one to fully pull it off in a successful fusion was George Gershwin, and, to a lesser extent, Leonard Bernstein in the late 1940s and early '50s.
Odd Titling at Work
Armer's Piano Concerto is made of sterner stuff. Its form is the traditional 24-minute, three-movement work, but the composer gives each movement an obtuse title instead of a tempo marking: "Every Prospect," "Calling Out," and "Vital Signs." Clearly, these tell us nothing. Even with Armer's own program notes, I have no clue as to what they're supposed to mean.
A long first movement nearly equaled the duration of the second two altogether, as in the layout of Brahms' First Piano Concerto. Written specifically for Brandwynne, a longtime friend of Armer's (and of new music), extensive piano solo passages turn up frequently, and indeed the Concerto opens with a solo cadenza. This is manifestly not a piece for beginners, but Brandwynne never even grimaced as she sailed though the demanding passages. The woman's fearless.
The piano part is set against a large, fully modern orchestra, replete with a plentiful supply of percussion hardware. More instrumentation oddities were employed, such as playing a marimba with a bow, so that it rather hums. Harmonically, Armer took a middle ground, mixing largely tonal passages with dissonant elements of 12-tone inference. The rhapsodic nature of the first movement, a thing that kept changing directions, was problematic. Then, too, the finale was too brief to balance out the whole. In any case, I look forward to a second hearing, perhaps after the work has had a little revising.
The Dangerous Liaisons was, of course, commissioned for the 1994 season of the San Francisco Opera, where it enjoyed a positive success. It has been repeated around the country. Susa's beautiful professionalism and his keen understanding of vocal lines indicate a master at work. The first scene presents us with a recitative, trio, and sextet, while the finale is the denunciation and Madame de Merteuil's final, bitterly touching epilogue.
Subtle Masterwork Revisted
Of course the deck was stacked for Susa by Philip Littell's sensational libretto, a thing that is as tight and immediately communicative as was W.H. Auden's libretto for Stravinsky's opera The Rake’s Progress. Then too, Susa is as fine an orchestrator as lives today. Everything he writes is so clear and beautifully balanced in supporting the text. Those opera samples rather eclipsed the rest of the evening for me.
Susa's music is no part of the avant-garde, but that doesn't matter when it still manages such individuality. He is obviously not interested in reinventing the wheel, and yet his works are no sticks in the mud.
This was even more apparent in the glow of sonorities during The Blue Hour, a Susa work premiered by the Denver Symphony. ("Blue hour" is twilight time, the brief period when the last rays of the sun have faded into mild light before true darkness.) The music is so rich in coloration and elegance of melody that in performance it glowed with a kind of soft sheen. It rose to greater richness as the sunset music appeared, which was followed by something close to a pastel conclusion. Susa's use of "falling sigh" motives was superior writing at a zenith of melodic structural strength.
The Conservatory Orchestra performed everything with honesty and enthusiasm, though there were a few problems. Patches of messy playing pockmarked some of the woodwinds' passages. A larger distraction came from the brass and percussion sections, both of which tended to be overbearing. I wonder why conductor Mogrelia did nothing to adjust this during the performance, or, for that matter, during rehearsals. Still, it's early in the academic year, so time and adjustments should soften such problems ... time, adjustment, and maybe an occasional temper tantrum from the podium.