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SFCMP presents a delightfully imaginative Webern ‘project’

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The title of last night’s program by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), prepared by Artistic Director Steven Schick and presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, was Project Anton. However, the “project” itself began last October; and the results greeted the audience as soon as they entered the lobby for the Forum. The objective of the project had been to demonstrate that the music of Anton Webern could be far more accessible to everyone, including kids, if it were properly presented.

Thus, in collaboration with Josefa Vaughan and ArtSeed, members of SFCMP made regular visits to the elementary classrooms of the San Francisco Unified School District Montessori School, introducing the students to Webern with the same creative enthusiasm that past generations of teachers have introduced Ludwig van Beethoven. This included not only Webern’s music but also stories about his life and tragic death. The students then made paintings and drawings based on what they had learned and experienced through the music, and the Forum lobby became the gallery space for their efforts.

The result was an environment that induced dispositions among the audience prior to the first note being sounded. The structure of the program then built on those positive dispositions, taking a symmetrical approach to the presentation of the music. The “bookends” were two performances of the same composition, Webern’s Opus 24, which he called a concerto and required only nine instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, and piano. Then, just as the art in the lobby had been a visual “response” to a “call” from Webern, Opus 24 was coupled with a “response” to the score, “Pointing Twice” by Polish composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski. As the title suggests, this composition was in two parts, the first presented after the opening performance of Opus 24, while the second preceded the reprise of that concerto. At the “center” of the program, on either side of the intermission, were works by two strikingly different composers, Alvin Lucier and Brian Ferneyhough, each of which embodied a different aspect of post-Webern aesthetics. All this made for an imaginatively balanced evening that engagingly dismissed the many myths of inaccessibility that had befuddled the listening public for much of the second half of the twentieth century.

Opus 24 is a model of the “pointillist” style often associated with Webern. The printed score page (a portion of which has been reproduced above) looks almost like a grid of individual notes and small groups of notes in isolation. However, when properly executed, the mind behind the ear can “step back” from those isolated “points” (as one steps back from a pointillist canvas) and apprehend the familiar constructs of theme and cadence as the sounds flow from one instrument to another. As the conductor, Schick expertly captured that sense of flow, which is one of the critical ingredients of the concerto. The other is an impeccable sense of intonation, achieved by each player being aware of the other eight players. This is how the performers achieve that sense of flow, even when no one of them actually defines it. In many respects the piano (played by Kate Campbell) sometimes establishes a framework, particularly in the second movement, since it provides the source of intonation to which all the other instruments must adjust.

Kapuscinski’s “response” to this music involved a microscopic deconstruction of that flow. In “Pointing Twice” the contributions of each of the nine instruments were isolated. Indeed, each performer worked with a sufficiently minimal fragment that all of them performed without sheet music. Within this space they also then served as observers to choreography created and danced by Korean Young-Doo Jung, which was also based on minimal fragments of movement. Finally, an “environment” was established in the form of a custom-built gramophone with turntable and an enormous horn, all created by John Granzow. Kapuscinski himself played records on this gramophone, some of which involved little more than the ambience of a scratchy needle. However, in the second part recorded sounds of Webern’s concerto interleaved with the performers, along with the sounds of an electronic score by John Chowning. As the ambience became more recognizable, so did Jung’s movements begin to suggest more explicitly the circumstances of Webern’s death. Thus, what had begun as almost microscopic abstraction gradually came into a focused reflection of the composer’s tragic end.

I use that phrase “microscopic abstraction” not only for Kapuscinski’s “response” to Webern’s pointillism but also for how Lucier and Ferneyhough each took that concept in a different direction. Lucier’s “In Memoriam Jon Higgins” is scored for clarinet and sine wave oscillator. Over the course of twenty minutes, the latter takes a gradual glissando from a pitch in the clarinet’s lowest register to one in its highest. As this tone ascends, the clarinetist (Jeff Anderle) is instructed to play steady tones, held through a portion of the glissando that rises from below that tone to the same distance above it. As the frequencies between the two sounds get closer, beat frequencies emerge, creating subtle patterns due to the contrast between the rich spectrum of the clarinet and the minimum spectrum of the sine tone. I also got the impression that, through breath control, Anderle had a hand in determining both the emergence of those patterns and the characteristics of the patterns themselves. Thus, through “playing” Lucier’s score, he was also “playing with” the physical properties the score was intended to evoke. (Steve Reich similarly exploited this idea of “playing with” in the performance of the solo violinist against tape recordings in “Violin Phase.”) The result was a twenty-minute duration, which, on the surface, gave the impression that very little was happening; but, when “observed microscopically” revealed an elaborate complex of activity.

Ferneyhough, on the other hand, was vigorously explicit about his own complex of activity in “La Chute d’Icare” (the fall of Icarus). This piece has less to do with the myth of the son of Daedalus flying too close to the sun and more to do with the painting by Pieter Bruegel (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus), where one barely sees Icarus in the distant background behind the hubbub of mundane workaday activities on both land and sea. Ferneyhough always composes with such thick textures of notes, sometimes requiring unmanageable rhythms, that one could say that “La Chute D’Icare” has everything to say about that hubbub of activity and nothing to say about Icarus. On the other hand, like the Lucier piece, this score also features a solo clarinet (played this time by Bill Kalinkos), that may well be Icarus struggling to get our attention. In the overall scheme of the program, this music also served as a “double response,” responding both to Lucier’s minimal use of the clarinet as a solo instrument and to Webern’s rethinking of the nature of a concerto.

Taken as a whole, then, this was a program of intricate design. However, for all of that intricacy, each piece established its own characteristic rhetoric that sought for a visceral response from the attentive listener. Last night the SFCMP musicians were at the top of their game, giving every last structural detail its necessary due without ever neglecting that rhetorical element so necessary to make a performance compelling.

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