Every March since 2011 BluePrint has concluded its season at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) with the world premiere performance of the winner of the Hoefer Prize. The award, named after Jacqueline Stanhope Hoefer, is granted annually to an SFCM graduate to cover all fees involved in producing a new work. The 2012 winner was Ian Dicke; and the composition created under the prize funding was a four-movement suite entitled Grand Central.
Scored for a relatively modest chamber ensemble, conducted by BluePrint Artistic Director Nicole Paiement, the suite is a love letter to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Built in 1913 on the site of a previous station (built in 1871), an October 2011 survey by Travel + Leisure rated Grand Central as “the world’s number six most visited tourist attraction.” (Presumably this did not count all the people passing through to get on or off the trains.)
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, I found any trip to Grand Central to be a real treat. The Main Concourse was enormous to a degree of being almost frightening; and the painting of the constellations on the ceiling always elicited a gasp or two. As an adult living in Stamford, Connecticut, Grand Central became my primary hub for all the performances I would attend in New York. The space felt less intimidating when it was simply instrumental in getting from here to there.
The four movements of Dicke’s suite cover the Solari display board (the split-flap electro-mechanical technology to show all arrival and departure information), the underground network connecting the station to the subway system, the Main Concourse itself as a “stage” on which any number of social dramas are performed, and a memory of the old “iron horse” steam engines that used to dominate the railway system. In his pre-performance conversation with Paiement, Dicke talked about his own personal memories of the setting. However, by 1982, the year in which Dicke was born, Grand Central was no longer a primary transportation location, although there is no doubting its treasured value as a tourist attraction.
At last night’s performance the music was supplemented with the projection of a video created by the composer’s wife, Elsa Ferrari. Much of this involved “location” footage, particularly of the Main Concourse and the adjacent subway system. The Solari display was synthesized, since that pioneering technology has now been replaced by digital video. Dicke’s use of percussion nicely recalled the sound of the Solari flaps (for those of us who knew the real thing); but the video was not historically accurate. (Trains did not depart Grand Central for Philadelphia. To get to Philadelphia, one left from Penn Station.) The most effective part of the suite involved the subway meditation, featuring a solo cello playing against samples of its own performance.
The lyricism of Grand Central, which concluded last night’s concert, nicely complemented the opening, Lou Harrison’s “Tandy’s Tango.” This was a far more modest work, originally composed for piano for the dancer Tandy Beale. Last night the music was performed in a version for two guitars made by David Tanenbaum. While the tango rhythm is doggedly persistent throughout this short piece, the thematic material is intriguingly inventive. Phrase lengths keep varying; and melodic lines tend to spin out longer than expectation would anticipate, often in a manner that Harrison probably knew from his experiences with Indonesian performance. Guitarists Paul Morton and Matt Bacon performed without amplification but had no trouble filling the SFCM Concert Hall with the quiet intimacy of Harrison’s score.
That spirit was also present in Daniel Catán’s “Encantamiento” (enchantment). This was originally scored for two alto recorders played by a single performer. However, last night’s performance presented a subsequent arrangement for flute (William Cedeño) and harp (Carla Fabris). While this music had its own rhetoric of quiet introspection, the logic lacked Harrison’s inventiveness and (unfortunately) played out over a longer duration. Nevertheless, the performers offered up an atmospheric account that engaged both ear and mind for much, of not all, of the time.
The only weak portion of the evening was Armando Luna’s Graffiti. This consisted of eleven short movements, each of which took a brief and highly energetic piece as a point of departure and “channeled” the music through the imagined minds of eleven different composers:
- Johann Sebastian Bach
- Béla Bartók
- Dave Brubeck
- Chick Corea
- Alfred Schnittke
- Benny Goodman
- Arthur Honegger
- Joseph Haydn
- Dmitri Shostakovich
- George Gershwin
- Alberto Ginastera
The major difficulty was that the “source material” was such an energetic flood of notes that it never lost its own stamp of individuality. Thus, each of the composers was represented, at best, by brief allusions to surface features, not all of which were clearly articulated. Furthermore, for most of the movements, even Luna’s “surface understanding” tended to miss the mark, particularly where the jazz composers were concerned.
To encourage the audience to look at the stage, rather than the program book, photographer Carlin Ma created an image for each of the composers. These tended to be informed more by knowledge of those composers than by Luna’s music. As a result, they tended to reinforce Luna’s detachment from his “sources of inspiration;” but they also offered up more diversity than any of the eleven movements had to offer.