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The Del Sol String Quartet presents four living composers at SFCM

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Last night’s concert in the Alumni Recital Series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) featured the Del Sol String Quartet. All members of the ensemble are SFCM graduates: first violin Kate Stenberg (’84), second violin Rick Shinozaki (’86), viola Charlton Lee (’93), and cello Kathryn Bates Williams (’07). As can be seen from the disparity among those years, the ensemble was not formed at SFCM. Instead, it began at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, in 1992. From the beginning the group has focused on new music, and much of their repertoire comes from commissions.

The oldest of the composers on last night’s program was the Cambodian Chinary Ung. Ung began his study of music as a clarinet major at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, after which, in 1964, he emigrated to the United States for further study at Columbia University. He eventually received his doctorate in 1974 under Chou Wen-Chung. Some may recognize 1964 as the year of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which marked the beginning of a major United States military presence in Vietnam, whose impact would subsequently spill over into Cambodia. Ung missed all of that, along with the most dire consequences for his country, which came with the takeover by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Half of Ung’s family and many of his closest friends were victims of the mass killings wrought by the Khmer Rouge.

In 2007 Ung composed “Spiral X” (the “X” is pronounced “ten”) as a memorial piece for all those lost during this era of the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison. Del Sol gave the premiere performance in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. The piece is actually an octet, since each of the quartet performers also has a vocal part, conceived in terms of the raw qualities of indigenous Cambodian music. The result is an intensely stark musical account of an age of genocide, particularly effective through its acute capacity for connotation. This was highly personal music, possibly even a product of “survivor’s guilt;” and Del Sol’s command of managing the interplay of vocal and instrumental lines made for a highly compelling account of a composer baring his soul without ever succumbing to emotional excess.

Survivor’s guilt may also have been the motivation behind Lembit Beecher’s These Memories May Be True. In this case, however, the survivor was not the composer but his Estonian grandmother. Last November the SFCM New Music Ensemble performed Beecher’s oratorio And Then I Remember, in which the recorded voice of his grandmother mingled with those of a female vocalist and a male chorus. These Memories May Be True is a four-movement suite for string quartet (with neither singing nor recorded voices) that deals more with leaving Estonia for the United States.

Beecher’s grandmother endured both the Soviet occupation of Estonia and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It was only near the end of the Second World War that she managed to board a ship sailing to the United States, an event captured in the suite’s second movement entitled “The Legend of the Last Ship.” The title of the suite comes from Beecher’s discovery that every Estonian immigrant in the United States had a “last ship” story, each involving a different ship.

Like And Then I Remember, the documentary style of These Memories May Be True held greater interest in its backstory than in the musical impressions of that story. It is clear that Beecher has a significant investment in that backstory, but he has not been able to capture that significance through his musical language. The result was that Beecher’s “second-hand” account lacked the intensity of Ung’s far more personal connection to his subject matter.

A similar example of “matching compositions” could be found in the four bagatelles by Mason Bates that concluded last night’s program. These were composed in 2011, which would also have been the time that Bates was working on “Alternative Energy” during his residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). That latter piece was performed here in February of 2012, when the CSO visited Davies Symphony Hall as part of the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Symphony.

Bates called that piece an “energy symphony;” and he structured it in four movements. One of the most memorable of those movements involved recorded samples of “junkyard” (Bates’ adjective) sounds to depict Henry Ford tinkering away in his efforts to build a self-propelled vehicle. Similar “junkyard” sonorities can be found in the bagatelles; but in this case they are produced by different ways of knocking on the quartet instruments. Those sounds were recorded in studio and realized as a “soundtrack” against which the first two bagatelles were performed.

True to its title, this was the lightest work on the program. Each of the four bagatelles is playful in its own way, and Bates’ capacity for wit comes across far more effectively in the intimacy of chamber music than it does in his larger orchestral compositions. It was clear from Del Sol’s performance that his wit was infectious; and, through that performance, the wit spilled from the stage to similarly infect the audience.

The impact of the bagatelles may have been all the greater for the somewhat tedious seriousness of the work that preceded it, Ken Ueno’s “Peradam.” The title refers to a diamond-like stone that is the object of a spiritual quest in René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue. Like “Spiral X,” “Peradam” requires the performers to vocalize. Ueno himself is a vocal performer with a capacity for a diverse repertoire of sonorities. Unfortunately, his talents did not translate very well to those of the Del Sol members, giving the piece somewhat of a me-too feel in following “Spiral X.” Ueno also used the piece to explore a wide variety of non-standard approaches to getting sound from the quartet instruments, some of which were so subtle that they could only be heard through amplification.

Sadly, all this did not amount to very much. The effect was a bit like a table spread out with brightly colored Lego pieces that had not yet been assembled into any structure. Had “Peradam” been on the scale of one of Bates’ bagatelles, it could have held some fascination; but over a duration of twenty minutes it left one wondering just what it was that Ueno was trying to say and why he could not come up with a suitable rhetoric for saying it.

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