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Left Coast Chamber Ensemble serves up a delightful program of ‘serious fun’

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Last night’s program by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was entitled Some Serious Fun. There was an underlying theme of games, circus acts, and other diversions. However, the evening began with the West Coast premiere of the 2013 LCCE Composition Contest winner and concluded by revisiting the winning composition of 2003. Furthermore, the shortest piece of the evening was also a world premiere.

This year’s competition winner was Michael-Thomas Foumai, who submitted the quintet “Scat,” scored for flute (Stacey Pelinka), clarinet (guest artist Jeff Anderle), violin (Anna Presler), viola (Kurt Rohde), and cello (Leighton Fong). In his introductory remarks to the audience, Foumai said that he had been inspired by watching a YouTube video of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing style and felt compelled to translate what she was doing with her voice into what he could do with instruments. The result was a delightful instance of what-goes-around-comes-around logic, since Fitzgerald had been inspired by the wildly uninhibited improvisations of leading bebop instrumentalists, such as Charlie Parker.

Foumai’s music did not evoke those heady days of jazz in the Forties, or any other jazz style for that matter. Indeed, there was so much well-conceived precision in the interplay of the five parts that even the spirit of improvisation was lacking. What remained, however, was a present-day reflection on that uninhibited approach to music-making, structured not around jazzy riffs but around the incessant descending third of a cuckoo clock. This intricate approach to a playful rhetoric set the tone for program’s overall theme perfectly, priming the audience for the delights that would follow.

The 2003 winner that concluded the program was Moritz Eggert’s “Pong;” and in this case the sense of play was decidedly a literal one. The title refers to the earliest computer-based game to be installed as a coin-operated machine, a simulation of ping-pong for two players using the simplest graphics imaginable. The physical layout of the musicians reflected the graphic layout of the game. Lined up on the left were Pelinka and Presler, along with guest violinist Joseph Maile. Facing them on the opposite side were Anderle and Fong, joined by violist Phyllis Kamrin. Between these two sides, pianist Eric Zivian embodied the “ball” with keyboard glissandos alternating between left-to-right and right-to-left.

The result was as much choreography as musical composition. Also, while the basic idea was simple, Eggert managed to sustain it for about eight minutes with a series of engaging embellishments and prolongations. Most importantly, however, the musicians respected the physical precision that had to complement their attentiveness to the score, making for a delightful bit of nostalgia for those who remember the game and a quirky introduction to it for the others.

The world premiere was of Steve Horowitz’ four-minute “The Wonder Pets Save the Circus.” This was a musical interpretation of a video game populated by cute pets acting as superheroes. Once again, the rhetoric was thoroughly uninhibited, this time in the spirit of freylach emulated by the quintet of Pelinka, Presler, Kamrin, Fong, and Zivian. Who knew that superheroes could sing in Yiddish?

The circus that the Wonder Pets were saving was the one imagined up by Laura Schwendinger for the composition that preceded Horowitz’. Interpreted by the same performers on their same instruments, the piece was a five-movement suite entitled High Wire Act. All but one of the movements were inspired by wire depictions of circus scenes designed by Alexander Calder. The other remaining movement recalled the composer’s own memory of a bird caught under a circus tent that could not find a way to escape.

This was not the first time that Schwendinger had tried to rethink the visual impressions of a work of art through music. Her “Chiaroscuro Azzurro” was performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in a BluePrint concert conducted by Nicole Paiement in October of 2010. Schwendinger engaged a variety of interesting techniques to translate Calder’s figures into the interplay of the chamber quintet. The high wire act of the title, itself, was particularly effectively realized by having Pelinka play her flute into the body of the piano while Zivian kept all the dampers raised, creating resonance effects that conveyed the tension of the circus performance.

Playfulness could also be found in five selections from a large collection of very short compositions that György Kurtág called Signs, Games, and Messages. These have been scored for different solo and group resources. Last night’s pieces were performed by the string trio of Presler, Rohde, and Fong. Each of these was as enigmatic as it was ludic. There were some useful comments to “decode” each of them given on the program sheet; but Kurtág would probably be just as happy with the listener’s imagination choosing its own path. What was important was that the performers caught Kurtág’s witty spirit, even if the focus of that wit was not always perfectly clear.

The most unique instrumentation was found in Scott Lindroth’s “Yield to Total Elation,” the title of a series of imaginary architectural drawings by Achilles Rizzoli. Pelinka performed on alto flute for this piece, joined by Kamrin and guitarist Michael Goldberg. What was most striking about this piece was the way in which Lindroth arrived at unique sonorities by having each of the pairs of instruments play unison passages. One had the sense of a colored background whose hues kept gradually shifting, occasionally punctuated by sharper delineation when the three instruments would join together in harmony. One might say that this was a musical “flight of fancy” to parallel Rizzoli’s graphic imaginations.

The only weak part of the program was the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 498 trio for clarinet, viola, and piano. This was supposedly inspired by a game of lawn bowling; but that connection may have been made by a publisher, rather than by Mozart himself. Clarinetist Jerome Simas joined Kamrin for the upper voices in this trio. Unfortunately, throughout much of the three-movement duration, their audibility was jeopardized by Zivian’s aggressive attack on his keyboard. His style robbed the music of any sense of play that Mozart had intended as well as masking out many of the subtleties of engagement between Simas and Kamrin.

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