Last night cellist Hannah Addario-Berry gave a solo recital in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church to launch a tour of thirteen North American venues, which she is calling her Scordatura Tour. “Scordatura” is the technique of changing the pitches of one or more of the strings on instruments in the string family; and the tour has been structured about one particular approach to alternative tuning. That approach was taken by Zoltán Kodály in his Opus 8, a sonata for solo cello whose key alternates between B minor and B major. To reinforce the priority of B as a reference pitch, Kodály required that the two lowest strings of the cello, the C and G string, each be lowered a semitone to B and F-sharp, respectively.
This is the centennial year of the composition of Kodály’s sonata. However, while he wrote it in 1915, it was not performed for the first time until 1918 and was not published until 1921. At that time the solo cello repertoire was pretty much confined to the six solo cello suites composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Opus 8 has drawn the attention of many great cellists. János Starker first played it for Kodály in 1939, when he was only fifteen years old; and, over the course of his life, he recorded it four times. However, beginning in 1964 Benjamin Britten began work on what would turn out to be a set of three solo cello suites, all written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich; and Rostropovich’s championing of these suites has somewhat eclipsed interest in Kodály’s Opus 8.
The winds of popularity are not always kind, and it is good to see that Addario-Berry has decided to bring Opus 8 back into the light. Musically, it is an absorbing offering that balances formal structure with intense expressiveness. The tempo marking for the first movement concludes with the adjective “appassionato;” yet it follows the basic recapitulation strategy of sonata form. What is interesting, however, is that, perhaps because this is music for a solo voice, that sonata form frames a rhetoric that is very much in the spirit of a recitative, almost as if to prepare the listener for what will come next.
Sure enough, the second movement, an Adagio qualified with a parenthetic “con grand’ espressione,” amounts to a cantilena that evokes both the warmth and the darkness of the contralto voice, while, at the same time, drawing on modal tropes to suggest an earthier folk setting in preference to the opera house. That folk setting then comes into its own with full force in the final Allegro molto vivace movement. The song has ended, and now the wild dancing begins.
All of this journey of expressiveness unfolds through the unique sonorities brought on by the use of scordatura to establish B as the tonal center. Addario-Berry thus decided that, if she had to retune her instrument, the least she could do was apply the alternative tuning to other compositions. So she reached out to composers she knew and commissioned “companion pieces,” which could be performed on a program with Opus 8 without her having to change the tuning of her instrument.
The result was four new compositions played during the second half of last night’s recital. Three of them were being given world premieres, Brent Miller’s collections of miniatures, which he named after the Zen mental exercise known as a koan, Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark’s “Ekpyrotic,” which required the cello to play against six layers of recordings of performances of the same music, and Lynn Renée Coons “Myth’s Daughter,” composed to be played in conjunction with a video. A fourth composition, Alisa Rose’s “Lands End,” had been previously performed but received its San Francisco premiere last night.
Since the only constraint was that the composers use Kodály’s alternative tuning, it is clear that each brought his/her own ideas to last night’s recital. This posed a certain hazard, which was that the ideas might overshadow the music, a hazard that never interfered with the impeccable balance of logic and rhetoric that Kodály brought to his Opus 8. The composer who came closest to that balance was Rose, who seemed to take Kodály’s interest in ethnomusicology (most evident in the final movement of Opus 8) as a point of departure for her own approach to folk forms. The structure of “Lands End” may have been based on a hiking trail here in San Francisco; but it was the folk rhetoric that gave this music its compelling energy.
Almost as compelling was Clark’s contribution, which really did not have to rely on cosmological theory (the academic discipline responsible for his piece’s title) as a motivating force. The idea of superimposing multiple layers of the same music is nothing new, and Steve Reich has taught a whole new generation about the rhetorical potential of such a technique. Fortunately, Clark found his own voice for that technique, which involved seeking out new sonorities for the instrument by applying miniature clothespins to the strings. Curiously, his technique worked so well that I found I drew more satisfaction looking at the floor, placing all of his layers on the same plane, so to speak, rather than relying on visual cues to single out the “live performance” element. Addario-Berry might want to experiment with playing this piece in a totally darkened space to prioritize the expressiveness of the overall texture.
Miller’s miniatures may not have been particularly Zen-like; but they were definitely engaging. There may be only a handful of composers willing to take on the challenge that brevity can be the soul of wit; but Miller seems to be one of them. At bit more problematic was his program note, which provided a list of composers involved in a “conversation” with both Miller and Kodály. Since the list did not constitute a one-to-one correspondence with the number of miniatures, this made for a bit of frustration over who was contributing to that conversation at any given time. Those names could probably have been left out without any major impact on the performance. The attentive listener could tell when Miller was appropriating and really would not need a detailed set of footnotes.
Least satisfying was the Coons multimedia approach to myth. Part of the frustration came from Addario-Berry whispering fragments, presumably from the texts documented by the Brothers Grimm. That fragmentation pretty much undermined any semantic connection to the tales, particularly since the whispering was barely audible. This may be one reason why hat the spirit of these folk tales never really emerged. Another may have been because the overall experience was one of sound and image (and, for that matter, words and music) competing with each other. This was the one piece on the program that felt as if it went on for too long, perhaps because, for all that diversity of media, it never quite figured out what it wanted to say.
Where all the other selections were involved, however, the recital made for a journey through an impressive diversity of approaches to expressiveness, first within Kodály’s single sonata and then through the latter-day impressions of a new generation of composers.