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Tenor Brian Thorsett brings two world premieres to Noe Valley Chamber Music

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The program that tenor Brian Thorsett prepared for yesterday afternoon’s Noe Valley Chamber Music concert featured world premieres by two local composers. During the first half of his program he performed “There was an Old Man” by Brian Holmes, who divides his time between composing and teaching physics at San Jose State University. The title was a favorite opening line for the limericks of Edward Lear. Holmes’ piece set eight of those limericks to the same tune, alternating them with “reflections” on the texts for solo violin, performed by Natalie Carducci. This made the entire composition a rather cleverly conceived rondo with variations. Thorsett performed the limericks with gusto and a fair amount of dramatization, making this the wittiest part of his program.

The intermission was followed by a far more serious song cycle, The Cauldron by Peter Josheff, known to many for his clarinet work with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and other ensembles. This was a setting of six poems by Carol Van der Veer Hamilton, who died last April at the age of 62 after a long battle with cancer. Josheff scored the accompaniment for the songs for violin and guitar (Adam Cockerham).

Unfortunately, the program book did not provide the texts of Hamilton’s poems (nor, for that matter, did it mention the poet’s name). One could tell from the intensity of Josheff’s settings that these were serious reflections, but Thorsett’s diction was not up to delivering the texts in a consistently comprehensible manner. Thus, while there was a strong sense that these texts demanded focused concentration, it was all but impossible to approach them with the attentive listening that the composer had probably intended.

Sadly, this disregard for both the text and any recognition of the authors was symptomatic of the entire program. It was most evident in three madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi, all of which Cockerham accompanied on theorbo; and Carducci provided a violin line for the second madrigal in the set. With no clear semantic evidence, one could approach these settings as a more abstract presentation of Monteverdi’s harmonic language; but it is doubtful that Monteverdi himself would have intended these to be abstract compositions. That semantic dimension fared a bit better in the songs in the English language, but there was still a problem of consistency in Thorsett’s diction. Most satisfying was probably Mátyás Seiber’s setting of Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which followed the Holmes premiere. This was a clever setting of a familiar text for which Carducci’s violin line was spiced with a few sound effects for both of the poem’s protagonists.

Carducci also gave an impressive account of a Largo movement from one of Antonio concertos, accompanied by Cockerham’s theorbo. Curiously, her selection was from a concerto for viola d’amore, whose sound is particularly distinctive due to its sympathetic strings. Nevertheless, Carducci’s expressive performance combined with the rich sonorities of the theorbo made this a highly satisfying account. The same could be said for her solo take on Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell.” This lament definitely deserves to be remembered as more than just the theme for Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and Carducci endowed the relatively simple tune with many memorable qualities.

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