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Six soloists present six composers at the Center for New Music

Composer Brien Henderson
Composer Brien Henderson
from his Facebook page

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted the program curated by Brien Henderson entitled Unaccompanied: The Art of Solo Performance. As Henderson observed in his opening remarks, this grew out of his seeking a platform for the first performance of “Confessions: I,” which he had composed for solo viola. He decided that, rather than working it into a viola recital, he would prepare a program of solo works for other instruments (and, as it turned out, voice) as a more appropriate setting.

The result made for an engaging juxtaposition of past and present. The program included two of Henderson’s contemporaries, one of whom, Brent Miller, is a co-founder of C4NM. The other was Benjamin Sabey, one of Henderson’s teachers at San Francisco State University. The past reached all the way back to 1933, the date of John Cage’s solo clarinet sonata and also included two works from the Seventies, the eighth of Vincent Persichetti’s “Parable” compositions, written for horn, and selections from Georges Aperghis’ Recitations.

It is probably the case that all six of these composers provided “first contact” experiences for most of the audience. Personally, I knew Cage’s sonata but only through a recording. This made for quite a lot to take in over the course of a relatively brief (about 90 minutes) concert. However, what was particularly interesting was the diversity of approaches that these composers took to working with a solo resource.

In many respects Cage was the most abstract. He seemed to consider his sonata, as he did many of his earliest compositions, as a problem to be solved in the selection of pitches and durations. By 1933 Cage was aware of the work of Arnold Schoenberg and seemed to be seeking out his own framework for the organization of notes. His decision to work with a clarinet may have involved little more than the decision to work with a single melodic line with few constraints on the range of pitches that could be selected. The result was a three-movement sonata whose final movement was a retrograde of the pitches (but not the durations) of the first. Cage also honored Schoenberg’s “equality of octave transposition,” with the result that the clarinetist has to contend with some extraordinarily prodigious leaps.

Last night this sonata was performed by Annie Phillips. She clearly had little difficulty in mastering the technical demands, particularly where register shifts were involved. Also, because Cage did not bother to specify any dynamics, she worked out her own ways to shape the lengthy unfolding of Cage’s melodic lines through well-phrased dynamic shifts. The result was a spirited account of an almost improvisational rhetoric in which any details of Cage’s approach to structure were secondary (partly because the retrograde of a long passage is very difficult to detect unless the composer enhances it with recognizable cues).

Persichetti’s “Parable,” on the other hand, was clearly all about the horn. Between 1965 and 1986 Persichetti wrote 25 of these “Parable” pieces, most (but not all) of which were for solo instrument. Taken as a whole these can be viewed as an extended study into the diversity of sonorities. If Cage was primarily interested on the wide range of pitches a clarinet could play, Persichetti seemed to take the equally wide range of sounds that a horn could produce as his point of departure. In this setting he could then juxtapose some of the more familiar (horn-like) “fanfare intervals” with some highly adventurous chromaticism.

Here, again, performance was a matter of bringing rhetorical shape to an exploratory logic. The soloist was Monika Warchol; and, like Phillips, she played with a secure command of her instrument and what the composer demanded of that instrument. I suspect that, for most of the listeners, this was an introduction to aspects of horn playing that had not previously been considered (or perhaps even thought to be possible). Considering the brevity of the composition, the density of its ideas was quite impressive; but Warchol performed with a knowledgeable grasp of the full breadth of those ideas.

In a similar respect the individual short pieces in Aperghis’ Recitations tend to approach the voice more as a musical instrument than as a linguistic vehicle. Thus, while brief passages of text may serve as the core of each of his pieces, Aperghis is far more interested in phonology than in semantics. He thus explores the expressiveness that can arise strictly from the level of vowel and consonant sonorities and the variations in timbre that may be imposed on both of these categories. Meaning is secondary, although it seemed clear that Aperghis showed a preference for those phonological properties that distinguish French from other languages.

The performer was Amy Foote, who was as agile in responding to the broad spectrum of vocal demands that Aperghis imposed as Phillips and Warchol had been in responding to their respective instrumental demands. There were also several theatrical approaches to her performance. Because much of Aperghis’ work involves experimental theater, it would be reasonable to assume that those approaches were specified in his score pages. Fortunately, Foote is as comfortable in dealing with theatrical demands as she is in jumping through all of the technical hoops that Aperghis had conceived. This is music that definitely deserves more opportunities for performance.

The earliest of the contemporary pieces was Miller’s book of eight miniatures followed by a more extended “Prelude/Postlude” movement. These were composed for bass, and Miller explained that they were inspired by his exposure to the music of György Ligeti. He also spoke a bit about the arduous prospect of finding his own voice in the wake of that exposure. The very idea of miniaturism can be found in some of Ligeti’s pieces, along with the exploration of non-standard ways to produce sound from the instrument. In this case that involved using a mallet that had just played a rhythmic passage on wood blocks. One of the pieces also involved the performer singing along with the melodic line, and in another the bass provided musical accompaniment for a recited passage.

This all made for a clever brew of musical ideas. Megan McDevitt approached each of the short pieces with the sort of aplomb that communicated the underlying humor without stressing it. (She also dropped the score page for each miniature on the floor after playing it.) The result was that much of the prankishness that characterized so many of Ligeti’s pieces was evident, but the rhetoric of that prankishness had been reconceived in an entirely original setting.

Sabey’s solo for flute was entitled “Arc Flicker;” and one could appreciate the truth-in-advertising of his title. The piece was structured around rapid unfoldments of small clusters of notes. Since each of these gestures was detached, each served up its own interpretation of the “flicker” concept. Each also had its own sense of direction (or “arc”). Whether or not there was a larger-scale “narrative arc” to the entire composition was not immediately evident and would require further listening. Thus, the most salient characteristics of a “first contact” experience could be found in the technical skills of flutist Gina Gulyas and her comfortable command of all of those brief rapid-fire gestures.

Unfortunately, Henderson’s own composition, the raison d’être for the entire evening, was the most disappointing. Written for viola, it was the first of an anticipated series entitled “Confessions” (in the spirit of Persichetti’s “Parable” compositions). In his introductory remarks Henderson talked about drawing upon pre-Baroque influences; but his comments seemed to betray a somewhat muddled view of the differences between the Medieval and Renaissance periods, not only in terms of the “literature” of those periods but also with regard to the very mindset of making music.

The music was performed capably by violist Ivo Bokulic. One could appreciate his efforts to evoke some of the bowed-string sonorities of those earlier periods, as well as the gradual imposition of counterpoint on chant-like melodic lines. Nevertheless, this was the one piece on the program that felt as if it was going on for too long. (It also happened to be the first piece on the program.) It left the impression that the composer was still trying to figure out what he wanted to say while dealing with a first venture into new territory.

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