I have to confess that, while I have been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost twenty years (I can gauge my arrival against Michael Tilson Thomas becoming Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony), my awareness of the composer Richard Festinger has been only through pre-performance talks he has organized for a series of free chamber music concerts given every year at San Francisco State University (SFSU). By going to some of those talks, I came to know that Festinger was a Professor of Music Composition at SFSU, which is a post he has held since 1990. However, I have not yet heard any of his music performed in concert; and, until Naxos released an album of four of his compositions in their American Classics series this past March, I had not had any encounter with his music at all.
All four of those pieces require the limited resources of a chamber ensemble. However, there is a complexity to Festinger’s approach to composition that means that they all require a conductor. This includes the song cycle The Coming of Age, setting four poems by Denis Johnson, for soprano (Jo Ellen Miller), flute (Jayn Rosenfeld), clarinet (Jean Kopperud), violins (Linda Quan and Sunghae Anna Lim), viola (Lois Martin), cello (Christopher Finckel), and piano (Margaret Kampmeir), all conducted by Harvey Sollberger. The three instrumental selections, “Diary of a Journey,” “Laws of Motion,” and “A Dream Foretold,” are performed by the New York New Music Ensemble conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky.
All of these are relatively recent works. “A Dream Foretold” is the earliest, completed in 2001. The song cycle and “Diary of a Journey” were both composed in 2003; and “Laws of Motion” was completed in 2004. There is a transparency to Festinger’s approach to chamber music, which facilitates the ability to listen to both the contributions of the individual instruments and the overall mix of their sonorities. However, while the composer clearly has a solid command of the grammatical nuts and bolts of his craft, it is not always as clear just what he is building with his materials. The idea that there should be some logical path that leads the attentive listener from the opening gesture to the final cadence is elusive; and, if that path is there, the listener may still be led astray through the lack of a rhetorical framework to lead him/her along the way.
The result, then, is an album of four pieces, each of which has been crafted with meticulous attention; but there is the risk that there is little to engage the curious listener other than the impressively precise quality of the craft itself.