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Left Coast Chamber Ensemble explores music inspired by drama, poetry, and prose

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Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) performed the final program of their 2013–2014 season. Entitled Left Coast Summer Reading, the program consisted almost entirely of musical responses to literary efforts in drama, poetry, and prose. The evening was framed by two particularly significant efforts, concluding with Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, composed in 1923 as a musical interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata and beginning with six “Court Studies” by Thomas Adès, based on music extracted from his 2004 opera The Tempest capturing the character types William Shakespeare had created for members of the Court of Naples.

Janáček’s quartet, in many respects, constitutes a “narration” of Tolstoy’s text, which is, in turn, the narration of a man who has killed his wife in a jealous rage. By the time he composed it, he had completed two major operas dealing with sexual tension, Jenůfa, first completed in 1902 and eventually revised to its final version in 1915, and Káťa Kabanová, completed in 1921 and subsequently edited by two different conductors. The quartet may also have captured Janáček’s personal reflections on his extramarital affair with Kamila Stösslová.

I have previously suggested that each of the three characters of the plot is embodied in one of the instruments. The first violin is the husband, the second violin is his wife (possibly with “second fiddle” connotation), and the other man in her life is the viola. The cello then transforms its traditional role of continuo into that of narrator, meaning that the husband is present in two different instruments, each serving a different narrative function.

Whether or not the LCCE performers (violinists Anna Presler and Phyllis Kamrin, violist Kurt Rohde, and cellist Tanya Tomkins) were aware of how their respective parts might double as dramatic roles, they certainly managed to capture the emotional intensity of the plot itself. There is a prose-like quality to the phrasing of much of Janáček’s music; and that quality definitely emerged in this interpretation. Indeed, it provided the basis for the ways in which Janáček could capture not only agreement and argument but also the struggle of one voice to be heard when others are speaking.

Adès’ music, on the other hand, was an examination of individual personalities. Each was based on a brief passage from Shakespeare’s play, originally sung as a solo in the libretto that Meredith Oakes had provided for the opera. However, the six “studies” themselves are played without interruption. This is not meant to embed the characters in Shakespeare’s narrative flow. Rather, for those who know the play, the effect is a bit like a portrait gallery in which one visits the characters whose role in the tale are already known.

Adès scored these studies for clarinet (Jerome Simas), violin (Presler), cello (Tomkins), and piano (Eric Zivian). In this case the different instruments do not embody different characters or even different character traits. Rather, they provide the opportunity to rethink a few lines of Shakespeare’s words into a multifaceted account of the character being examined. Thus, what was particularly significant about the performance was how the balance of the four performers captured both the differentiation of factors in an individual personality and the integration of those factors into a single character.

Janáček was also represented on the program by a short duo for cello and piano entitled “Pohádka” (fairy tale). Composed in 1910 and revised in 1912, it is based on Vasily Zhukovsky’s epic poem The Tale of Tsar Berendyey. As a distillation of a major heroic tale, it may be viewed as an initial exercise prior to Janáček’s interpretation of the legend of Taras Bulba as a three-movement orchestral suite. Unfortunately, neither the accompanying program notes nor the performance by Tomkins and Zivian brought much clarity to what was being distilled, although one could still enjoy both the sonorities and the particularly unique phrasing qualities of Janáček’s rhetoric.

The spirit of the text was just as elusive in the two new works presented on the program. Ursula Kwong-Brown’s “Sonnet XX,” which just won the 2014 Bowdoin International Music Festival composition prize, is a solo cello piece based on a poem by Pablo Neruda that begins (in English translation) “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” This is a very sophisticated text, not only through the formal constraints of a sonnet but also in the sense of detachment that comes from writing about writing. Unfortunately, Kwong-Brown never seemed to penetrate beyond the intense anguish on the surface, although those surface features were movingly captured by Leighton Fong’s cello performance. The result was a piece in which any particular moment could be highly effective, while, taken together, all of those moments never really added up to much of a whole.

More disappointing was Mika Pelo’s “Lament” for piano trio (again Presler, Tomkins, and Zivian). This was originally intended as another reflection on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Somewhere along the way, however, that goal was abandoned in favor of variations on one of the themes from Janáček’s quartet. However, by the time the work was given its world premiere performance last night, there was little evident of Janáček, Tolstoy, or, for that matter, Shakespeare. The work was shorter than the full duration of Adès’ six studies, but it felt uncomfortably longer with little to capture the listener’s attention.

The program also included Robert Schumann’s Opus 70, an Allegro movement with Adagio introduction, originally composed for horn and piano in 1849. Schumann subsequently rewrote the horn part for cello, which is how it was played by Tomkins with Zivian’s accompaniment; but there are any number of passages that are clearly recognizable as horn tropes. Unfortunately, Zivian took that overly-aggressive approach to the keyboard that seems to pervade most of his nineteenth-century interpretations, often reducing Tomkins’ part of the conversation to inaudibility. There were no “literary overtones” to this composition; but it still could have benefitted from a more sensitive approach to the conversational relationship between the two instruments.

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