Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the first season of Brenden Guy’s Curious Flights concert series concluded with a program entitled Transatlantic Crossings. It featured the music of renowned British composer Edwin Roxburgh; and the concert was originally intended to conclude a one-week residency that Roxburgh would spend in San Francisco. Unfortunately, a family illness obliged Roxburgh to cancel his trip; but the program went ahead as originally planned.
The major work of the evening was also the conclusion. This was a performance by a generously-sized Curious Flights Chamber Orchestra of Roxburgh’s How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear. Roxburgh had been scheduled to conclude his residency by conducting this piece, and he was replaced by local conductor Dustin Soiseth.
The composition was a suite, each of whose six movements set one of the longer nonsense poems of Edward Lear. These were narrated by Nicholas Hohmann, who also provided the introductory recitation of Lear’s self-mocking poem “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear.” When I was growing up Lear’s limerick’s were some of my earliest encounters with books that involved more than pictures, after which I came to know some of his longer poems, the most famous of which is probably still “The Owl and the Pussycat.” As I write this, I cannot recall the last time I encountered any reference to Lear other than Igor Stravinsky’s serial setting of “The Owl and the Pussycat;” and limericks are better known as sources for clever off-color rhymes.
The musical resources for Roxburgh’s suite, composed in 1971, are reminiscent of William Walton’s 1923 Façade – An Entertainment, a musical accompaniment for the reading of selected poems by Edith Sitwell. In her day Sitwell was sometimes compared to Lear, but in the contemporary lexicon it would be more accurate to call her an absurdist. Lear’s verses communicate through a gumbo of familiar and made-up words, which often make sense on the basis of how they sound and are structured with an impeccable sense of grammar. Lear was also an expert illustrator; and one could say that his texts always depict skillfully, even when one is not quite sure what the words mean.
One might then describe Roxburgh’s suite as an effort to parallel Lear’s acts of depiction through music. His settings run the gamut from atmospheric landscapes to explicit denotation, the latter often with more than a little good-humored silliness. The one difficulty with last night’s performance was the occasional tendency for the orchestra to overwhelm the narrator. Nonsense verse is at its best when every word is followed closely, and Hohmann was an excellent narrator for Lear’s spirit. However, even with microphone amplification, some of those words would occasionally get lost in a gesture of “symphonic flood.” Nevertheless, the overall spirit of Lear prevailed for most of the performance and was delightfully reinforced by Roxburgh’s musical inventions.
The program included two other Roxburgh compositions, both of which featured visiting percussionist Nicholas Reed. The percussion solo “Aube” (dawn), composed in 2008, takes its title from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud. In that poem Rimbaud describes a boy dreaming that he is holding dawn in his arms; and it would be fair to describe “Aube” as a highly tactile composition. This is not only a matter of Reed’s technique in striking objects with a variety of mallets but also involves his use of his hands to elicit sounds from some of those objects. As is the case with many percussion compositions, the performance of “Aube” is as much a matter of full-body choreography as of musicality. If it was Roxburgh’s intention that the soloist embody Rimbaud’s dreaming boy, the Reed succeeded last night by complementing his account of the score with a physical disposition that was both balletic and dramatic, making for a highly engaging performance.
Reed also performed Roxburgh’s first “Dithyramb” composition, completed in 1972, with Guy playing E-flat, B-flat, and bass clarinets. The title suggests connotations of the performance practices of Ancient Greece, while the clarinet line also evokes the sonorities of more recent Greek folk music. The use of quarter tones to bend many of the melodic pitches may reflect on the “enharmonic” chromatics in Ancient Greek music; but they are also found in contemporary folk practices. The title was further reinforced by an almost ritualized approach to performance, which made the performance of this short piece a highly compelling one.
The other side of the Atlantic, so to speak, was represented by two American composers, Larry London and Dylan Mattingly. Guy and Reed were joined by violinist Tess Varley for selections of incidental music composed by London for a puppet theater production of Dobashi, based on a play by Lucas Meyers. The play is an intense account of the Japanese-American experience in California prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The reduced musical resources recall the traveling theater setting for L’Histoire de soldat; and Igor Stravinsky’s instrumentation for that production included, among other instruments, clarinet, violin, and percussion. However, while Stravinsky’s movements tended to illustrate the narrative (with the assistance of descriptive titles), London’s episodes seemed more like background interludes. Even with the synopsis of the narrative in the program book, there was little sense of the role that this music was playing.
The program began with Dylan Mattingly’s “Six Night Sunrise,” a duo composed in 2010 for violin (René Mandel) and piano (Miles Graber). In this case Mattingly’s contribution to the program book read as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing; and, to some extent, the music reflected that literary technique. Mattingly also offered a subtitle, “Music of Barges & Metallic Stars;” but that was no more helpful than the booklet text. One can imagine this music benefitting from multiple listening opportunities; but the strongest impression made on “first contact” came across as one of deliberate obfuscation, a sharp contrast with all of the other selections that followed on the program.