In January of 2013, the ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman began their tenure as artists-in-residence in the Old First Concerts series with a program of five world premieres at Old First Church, four of which were by composers based in the Bay Area. Last night in the same venue, ZOFO concluded its residency with another program of premieres. This time, however, none of the composers were working in the United States. The four pieces on the program were written in France (Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer’s three-movement divertimento), Italy (The West Coast Point of View by Francesco Di Fiore), New Zealand (“Three Rhythmics” by Jack Body), and Australia (a single-movement sonata by Carl Vine).
Of these pieces, only Tickmayer’s was a world premiere, composed on a commission for ZOFO. The pieces by Di Fiore and Body were receiving their American premieres. Vine’s sonata was being performed for the first time in the Bay Area.
Tickmayer was born in 1963 in a Hungarian community located in Novi Sad in what was then Yugoslavia. He managed to move to France to escape the hostilities that broke out after the Yugoslavian government collapsed. However, like his Hungarian predecessors, Bélá Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, he has been strongly influenced by the indigenous music of Eastern Europe. This is particularly evident in his use of elaborate rhythmic patterns and in the third movement, which grew out of the composer’s own improvisations.
Tickmayer’s compositional voice is decidedly original. One would not confuse him with either Bartók or Kodály, but one might still guess his roots. In last night’s performance ZOFO glided through Tickmayer’s elaborate rhythms with the usual facility they bring to taking on surface-level complexity. This gave the evening an energetic start that reassured listeners that ZOFO’s technical skills were as acute as ever.
This was followed by The West Coast Point of View, which could have been subtitled “An Italian in San Francisco.” This was a suite in six movements, each of which captured a different aspect of a sightseer’s experiences. In the same vein as George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” the music is an affectionate memoir that sometimes overloads the sentimentality. Nevertheless, there was something particularly touching to the movement depicting the Poetry Room at City Lights Bookstore, one of the venues where the late Amiri Baraka used to read his work.
Both Body and Vine seemed to approach four-hand piano music as an opportunity to keep more keys going at the same time. Indeed, the third of Body’s “rhythmics” had the subtitle “Nancarrowesque.” This was a clear indication that he had been inspired by the “studies” Conlon Nancarrow had created by manually punching player piano rolls. Both pieces were awe-inspiring in their never-enough-notes activity; but they also tended to be more than a little overwhelming.
The result was another evening of what I have come to call “cognitive overload,” which arises when mind is pushed to the limit of the amount of novelty it can manage. This situation arose in the abundance of those five world premieres in January of 2013; and it recurred last night with four pieces, all of which were brand-new to most of the audience. While it is admirably impressive that ZOFO can be so adept at exploring so much new repertoire, they might wish to consider providing their listeners with some “break time” to collect their thoughts rather than arranging these somewhat intimidating parades of novelty.