Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) launched the San Francisco stage of its 2015–2016 season with a program entitled With You in Mind. With one minor exception every work on the program was written for one or more specific performers. The historical scope of those pieces ran from 1891 to the immediate present of a world premiere. Those extremes also framed the entire evening, albeit in reverse chronological order.
Thus, the evening concluded with one of Johannes Brahms’ last works, his Opus 114 trio in A minor for piano, clarinet, and cello. This was also the longest work on the program by a considerable interval. The story behind its composition has become a familiar one. In 1890 at the age of 57, Brahms declared that he was retiring from his career; but not long thereafter he changed his mind as a result of listening to the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld perform with the Meiningen orchestra. That experience led to four additions to the Brahms catalog, the Opus 114 trio, the Opus 115 clarinet quintet in B minor, and the two sonatas of Opus 120 in F minor and E-flat major, respectively. These were all written between 1891 and 1894.
One can appreciate that Brahms was “trying things out” in Opus 114. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he appreciated how each of the three registers of the clarinet’s range had its own distinctive sonority. Thus, he could alternate between having clarinet and cello blend in a common register (often with some uncanny unison sonorities) and contrast each other in separate ones. Indeed, he was so occupied with these instruments that, in the canon of his chamber music with piano, Opus 114 is probably the selection that sounds least like a concerto for piano and very small orchestra.
Last night the “role of Mühlfeld” was taken by Jerome Simas and complemented by the cello work of Leighton Fong. At the keyboard Eric Zivian seemed to recognize that this particular Brahms composition was not all about the piano; and, at least for the first three movements, he kept his own dynamics sufficiently controlled to allow the many different combinations of sonorities from clarinet and cello to flower. It was only during the kinetically charged Allegro of the final movement that Zivian got swept up into Brahms’ abrupt shifts in dynamics, apparently unaware that the markings never rose to the fortissimo level and that a sforzando occurs only once in the final measures. All this seems to have gone against the grain of what was probably an intentionally subdued valedictory rhetoric in this trio, resulting in a last word that definitely did not do Brahms any favors.
Fong also participated in the opening world premiere, which was written as a duet for both him and flutist Stacey Pelinka. The composition was “Limn” by Oakland-based John MacCallum. The work requires electronic accompaniment, and it was a fascinating study in rhythm.
As he explained in his opening remarks, both performers are required to make a transition from a slower tempo to a faster one. However, while they share a common goal and point of departure, they do not have to share rate of change. The result is that a variety of intriguing and indeterminate transitional rhythmic patterns emerge from this process. The electronic accompaniment seems to play the role of a continuo, providing both players with points of reference. However, while the reference points of Baroque continuo involve pitch, those from MacCallum’s computer allowed the two performers to share a common sense of pulse. While it is difficult to judge such an innovative new work on the basis of a single listening, it was clear that both Pelinka and Fong served it well with a highly focused execution; and that was sufficient to leave the attentive listener hoping that an opportunity for future listening would arise in the not-too-distant future.
Pelinka and Fong also performed “Miroirs” (mirrors) created in 1997 by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and written for fellow Finns, the flutist Camilla Hoitenga and the cellist Anssi Karttunen. This piece involved a different approach to indeterminacy, consisting of modules that may be assembled in different orders and combinations. Last night Pelinka and Fong performed from a single shared score page based on Saariaho’s own assembly of the parts. The piece was only about four minutes in duration, which was hardly enough time for even the most skilled listener to apprehend just what those modules were, let alone any rules of assembly. This meant that the overall concepts of reflection and symmetry never really emerged, although the music could still be enjoyed for the composer’s keen sense of sonority.
Far more accessible was her miniaturist solo cello suite, Sept papillons (seven butterflies), also composed for Karttunen. Over the course of seven brief movements, Saariaho explored a wide diversity of approaches to getting sound from a cello. Through those approaches, one could appreciate the differences between the butterflies being depicted (whether or not any of them were grounded in biological reality). There was also considerable bias towards tremolo passages, giving the impression of ongoing motion in flight. It also seemed as if register had been selected to demonstrate the diversity of sizes of the butterflies that the composer had in mind. All this was given a thoroughly engaging interpretation through Fong’s cello work.
The lower register also played a major role in “The Swan Takes Flight,” which Zivian composed for Simas to play on bass clarinet. This piece was a “response” to the call of “Le cygne” (the swan), the penultimate movement from The Carnival of the Animals, composed by Camille Saint-Saëns and originally scored (in this particular movement) for two pianos and cello. Simas explained to the audience that he came to know Saint-Saëns’ composition because it was used by the San Francisco Symphony as an audition piece for bass clarinet, and he played it in this form with Zivian accompanying to introduce Zivian’s own work.
The latter is only slightly longer than the exquisitely brief former. (Simas masterfully demonstrated that a bass clarinet, when properly performed, can be just as expressive as a cello.) Zivian’s piece is essentially a recombination of the melodic and accompanying motifs in Saint-Saëns score, mixed in with a few hoots imitating the actual swan song. The sense of “flight” in the title was pleasantly captured by taking Saint-Saëns’ ascending figure and encouraging it many more scale steps upward. The overall result was an entertaining diversion, even if the approach seemed to prefer abstraction to expression.
The major disappointment of the evening came with Francis Poulec’s flute sonata composed in 1957 for Jean-Pierre Rampal when Poulenc received a commission from the Coolidge Foundation. The resulting score covers a wide range of expressive approaches, beginning with melancholy in the opening movement, progressing into an introspective cantilena, and concluding with an unabashed Presto giocoso romp. Flutist Pelinka clearly appreciated this wide diversity of moods and went to great lengths to make sure that each would be properly communicated to the attentive listener.
Unfortunately, her efforts were undermined by Zivian’s piano work. Instead of Poulenc’s gossamer Gallic charm, just as capable of being wistful as of being joyous, the listener had to contend with heavy-handed assertiveness at the keyboard. This may have prompted Pelinka to sharpen the edge on the occasional expostulations that Poulenc required of the flute; but, more often than not, she had to struggle just to be heard. Most regrettably the greatest casualty was the giocoso rhetoric of the final movement, which simply could not hold its own against Zivian bringing to much aggression to banging out its rhythms.