At the end of last month, I reported on how the International Low Brass Trio used their portion of a brass recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to showcase the music of three composers presented at a concert by the Guerrilla Composers Guild (GCG). Last night in their end-of-term New Music by Conservatory Composers concert, the SFCM New Music Ensemble provided another opportunity to listen to the work of one of those composers, GCG founder Nick Benavides. This past March saw the premiere of Pain Has an Element of Blank, Benavides’ song cycle of poems by Emily Dickinson scored for mezzo and piano, at the Hot Air Music Festival; and last night the New Music Ensemble performed orchestrations of three of these songs.
Setting Dickinson can be a formidable challenge. While her poems are brief and seem almost simplistic on the surface, that surface almost always conceals enigmatic depths. To make matters worse for any composer today, the work of Aaron Copland continues to cast a long shadow over Dickenson’s words, since his settings of twelve of her poems continue to be popular with recitalists.
Benavides had the courage to take on two of the poems that Copland had already set, “Heart, we will forget him!” and “I felt a funeral in my brain.” Fortunately, he had no trouble finding his own voice to express his own interpretation of these texts. Furthermore, he is now exploiting the resources of a chamber orchestra to flesh out the context in which the mezzo delivers those texts. Last night there were still problems of balance to be resolved, since the vocal line did not always come through with the crisp clarity that any reading of Dickinson merits. Nevertheless, the performance emerged as a highly individual approach to poems that tapped into the soul of a highly individual woman.