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Eric Choate presents a full program of his compositions at SFCM

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Regular readers may know that I first encountered the music of Eric Choate through the International Low Brass Trio (ILBTrio). This group of three students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) used one of their SFCM performances to showcase works by members of the Guerrilla Composers Guild. The youngest of those composers, Eric Choate, provided ILBTrio with a fanfare that evoked the past (particularly the composer Paul Dukas) while rethinking it through an entirely original logic of melody and harmony.

Late yesterday afternoon Choate gave his Graduate Recital at SFCM. One could again appreciate both his insights into the past and his ability to harness those insights to the creation of new material. The most ambitious of his undertakings was a full four-movement string quartet; and the members of the Friction Quartet (violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz), with their own strong commitment to the performance of new music, were on hand to present this composition. The result was a vigorous account of music of intense energy, always working with a readily apprehensible thematic vocabulary, but exploring configurations of those themes that could break from conventional expectations. As usual, Friction gave a stimulating account of the score’s tight dissonances and its sinuous chromatic lines; but there was also some sense that the spirit of Béla Bartók was hovering above their unfolding of Choate’s tropes. This should serve as a welcome addition to the Friction repertoire.

In a totally different vein soprano Chelsea Hollow performed three settings of poems by Theodore Roethke with Choate accompanying at the piano. The outer two, “Epidermal Macabre” and “My Papa’s Waltz” both required setting Roethke’s use of language at its most grotesque (even if “Epidermal Macabre” is almost doggerel-like in its use of rhyme and metre), while the middle selection, “The Moment,” evoked a timeless eroticism that could easily have been inspired by John Donne. Sadly, these texts did not always emerge through the clearest diction; and Choate’s settings did not always seem to grasp Roethke’s skill in using tightly controlled structures to capture intense connotations. Nevertheless, the setting of “My Papa’s Waltz” extended beyond the words themselves into an extended coloratura coda in which Choate’s transmogrification of traditional waltzes (with an explicit allusion to Frédéric Chopin) skillfully matched the grotesquerie of Roethke’s language.

The program began with a set of seven preludes for solo piano performed by Daniel Chang. These were again high-energy compositions involving a generous share of complexity in the interleaving of contrapuntal lines. Each individual prelude was extended enough to stand on its own, making the full set a bit of an endurance test for Chang. Nevertheless, each prelude established its own characteristic voice, although the program offered few clues to provide the listener with expectations. (One prelude was explicitly designated as a memorial composition. The others were identified only by number.) However, if negotiating the full set was a bit daunting for the listener, the experience of virtuosic pianism expressed through a contemporary rhetoric was still a stimulating one.

All three of this program’s compositions definitely deserve further listening.

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