The title of the first program in the 2013–2014 season of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE), performed last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was Point/Counterpoint, denoting an approach to working with multiple melodic voices that emerged in the twelfth century and is just as relevant today as it was then. The temporal extent of that program was not quite that wide. However, the earliest composer was John Dowland, who flourished during the transition from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth, while the newest piece on the program was composed by Erik Ulman in 2009. The selections were chosen by the program’s “curator,” LCCE flutist Stacey Pelinka; so the evening offered a diverse perspective of the flute repertoire (including one selection by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on period instruments) over the span of about four centuries.
Nevertheless, the flute did not feature in the earliest pieces. Michael Goldberg performed four pieces by John Dowland, two contrapuntal inventions for solo lute and two of his lute-songs. Goldberg played all of these on a modern guitar; and for the lute-songs he was joined by soprano Christine Brandes.
These selections clearly set the tone, so to speak, for the emphasis on counterpoint and the exploration of melodic inventiveness in the individual voices. The solo selections, which framed the first half of the program, complemented each other, since “Forlorne Hope Fancy” was based on a melancholy descending line, while the theme for “Farewell” ascended through the chromatic scale. The song settings were distinguished by their emphasis on the semantics of the words, rather than the structural architecture of the poetry through metric and rhyme schemes. Dowland’s depictions were frequently refined to the level of endowing every word with its unique significance, and Brandes’ performance more than capably honored his meticulous detail.
Dowland’s lute-songs were juxtaposed with settings of two poems by Pierre de Ronsard composed in 1924 by Albert Roussel, composed in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Ronsard’s birth. Both of the poems are sonnets following the Italian (Petrarchan) rhyme scheme; and both are rich with descriptive language. Roussel set them for soprano and solo flute. The flute reinforces the ancient connotations of the text while frequently enhancing the text descriptions through its melodic lines. Here, again, the focus was on counterpoint, since the flute part was no mere harmonic accompaniment but an independent “voice of commentary” to supplement the vocal setting of Ronsard’s words. Stylistically, this provided a distinctive contrast to Dowland’s style while taking a very similar “semantic stance.”
The remaining work on the first half of the program, performed immediately after the lute-songs, was Ulman’s “this until,” a solo flute composition dedicated to Pelinka. This, too, involved an interplay of voices, even if it was limited to a single wind instrument. Through a variety of techniques, particularly breath control, Pelinka conveyed that her instrument assumed several different voices, each distinguished by a characteristic sonority. The music thus emerged as a sort of conversation, even if the topic of that conversation was never particularly explicit.
Pelinka performed this (with impressive control, it should be noted) from a single sheet of music stretched out over four music stands. (See the accompanying photograph.) Her horizontal movement thus gave her performance the connotation of a journey, taking a composition for solo instrument and endowing it with spatial qualities that served to enhance the contrapuntal experience.
The second half of the program also provided a striking contrast between the old and the recent. This portion was framed by two arias from Bach cantatas, beginning with “Sich üben im Lieben” (to become adept in love) from BWV 202 (“Wedding”) and concluding with “Bete aber auch dabei” (pray nevertheless also) from BWV 115, Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (come, my soul, thyself prepare), composed for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity. Between these was presented a performance of Elliott Carter’s 1952 sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord, the longest piece on the program.
While there was great contrapuntal intricacy in Carter’s sonata, it was distinguished as one of the pieces in which he explored the concept of “metric modulation.” This is best understood as an effort to deal with progressions of rhythmic patterns, involving both sequences and superpositions, that would involve a logic both similar to and distinct from that of harmonic progression. As might be guessed, this makes for a rather challenging listening experience; and, like many of Carter’s pieces, this is music that benefits the most from frequent exposure.
What was important was that last night flutist Pelinka, oboist Andrea Plesnarski, cellist Leighton Fong, and harpsichordist Katherine Heater gave their all to provide those of us on audience side with a clear account of Carter’s score. Such clarity is the first step towards establishing familiarity, and one could almost hope that they could make this performance an annual event. There were a few problems with balancing the harpsichord against the other instruments, but it turned out that these may have been problems with the harpsichord itself. Fortunately, Heater is as much at home with the inside of the instrument as she is with the keyboard; and there was a bit of a break between the first two movements during which she made some significant improvements to her instrument.
The Bach arias, sung again by Brandes, provided a context of affable familiarity for the Carter sonata. Most important was that all three of these selections had the intimacy one expects from chamber music. Elisabeth Reed was also featured as guest artist, performing on a five-string violoncello piccolo, to reinforce the extent to which Bach’s arias tend to involve dialog between a vocal line and an instrumental one. Furthermore, the decision to conclude the evening with period instruments provided one further dimension to the overall diversity of the program, making Pelinka’s plan for the evening one of LCCE’s most stimulating events.