Yesterday afternoon Davies Symphony Hall hosted its final Chamber Music Series recital presented by members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). (There will be one more chamber music recital at the Legion of Honor on June 7.) These programs are frequently distinguished by their diversity in repertoire. However, yesterday’s program was further distinguished by elements of dramatism that are not often encountered in the chamber music repertoire.
Those elements were most evident in George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” (the voice of whales). The late Sixties saw the rise of an interest in the “songs” of the humpback whales, whose eerie whistling sounds attracted enough attention to lead to the release of a popular vinyl recording. Crumb was among those interested listeners and was drawn to the challenge of evoking, if not imitating, those sonorities. The result was “Vox Balaenae,” completed in 1971 and scored for flute (Linda Lukas), cello (David Goldblatt), and piano (Gwendolyn Mok), all electronically enhanced.
Crumb’s interests as a composer, however, extend beyond the exploration of new sonorities. As early as his 1970 Ancient Voice of Children song cycle, he experimented with specifying dramatic elements as integral parts of the performance. In this respect it is important to note that “Vox Balaenae” was played on a darkened stage lit only by dim blue lights, creating the sense that the sounds were coming from water at a considerable depth. Each of the players also wore a black mask over his/her respective eyes, perhaps to suggest that they were intruders in the deep-sea world of Crumb’s sonorities.
It is also worth noting, without trying to be derogatory, that Crumb’s approaches to sonority were not particularly innovative. However, it may be valid to question whether or not he was aware of the unconventional approaches to the flute being taken by musicians of that particular time of the twentieth century, such as Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Yusef Lateef. (One can say the same of the gong suspended in water in Ancient Voices of Children, a technique John Cage had employed decades earlier for a water ballet, allowing the swimmers to hear the music under water.) Nevertheless, if many of Crumb’s devices were not original, he still managed to put his own personal stamp on how he used those devices.
Most notable is the clarity he could bring to his structural forms at a time when many of his contemporaries seemed to be relishing opacity. Basically, “Vox Balaenae” is a set of five variations on a “Sea Theme,” each named after a different geological era. Those variations are framed by a prologue, depicting “the beginning of time” and an epilog depicting “the end of time” (perhaps with a nod to Olivier Messiaen). What is most striking is that, while Crumb’s sonorous structures depart significantly from the usual sense of “theme,” the attentive listener quickly recognizes what the elements are and how they recur in the variations. Thus, in the grand scheme of things, listening to Crumb has much more in common with listening to the music of Johannes Brahms than it does with a composition by (to chose an example arbitrarily) Brian Ferneyhough.
It is unlikely that Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor was programmed after “Vox Balaenae” yesterday afternoon to make this point; but it is interesting that, in the canon of Brahms’ instrumental music, this chamber composition is particularly rich in dramatic elements. This is most evident in the final movement. On the surface this may have been a reflection on Joseph Haydn’s use of a “Gypsy Rondo” as a concluding movement. However, if Haydn simply wanted to indulge in using a folk theme or two, Brahms’ approach was far more visceral, going for the fiery rhetoric as much as for characteristic tunes. Indeed, the brief piano cadenza toward the end of the movement (taken by Sayaka Tanikawa) clearly has more to do with cimbalom technique than with piano virtuosity; and much of the writing for the strings (John Chisholm on violin, Matthew Young on viola, and Barbara Andres on cello) is more suited to a gypsy camp than a concert hall.
Similarly, Brahms seems to season his Andante con moto intermezzo movement with a bit of denotation that is almost explicitly visual. While the outer sections of the movement serve up some of Brahms’ most heartfelt thematic content, the middle section is nothing less than an intruding parade. At first we hear it from a distance, and the spiccato bowing makes the approaching sounds seem almost delicate. However, as they draw nearer, those sounds become more intrusive, ultimately blowing away any of the movement’s quietude with unfettered bombast. The parade then moves on, almost as if nothing had happened; and the Andante con moto rhetoric is restored to its proper place.
A similarly aggressive rhetoric, again with folk overtones, could also be found in the final movement of the opening selection, a string trio in D major by Sergei Taneyev. This piece was probably chosen by violinist Victor Romasevich, who has consistently presented stimulating performances of little-known works by Russian composers. He has pursued his interests not only through the SFS Chamber Music Series but also with his own Jupiter Chamber Players ensemble in the Old First Concerts Series at Old First Church. Yesterday afternoon he was joined by Goldblatt on cello and Wayne Roden on viola.
Personally, I was aware of Taneyev more through his theoretic interest in counterpoint (his massive two-volume treatise Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style) than through his compositions. (I was originally interested in Taneyev because he approached counterpoint almost as if it were a discipline of pure mathematics.) Counterpoint abounds in the D major trio, often with all of that “mathematical” strictness that occupied Taneyev as a scholar. Nevertheless, the SFS musicians gave the music a richly expressive reading that all but concealed the austere abstractions at its roots.
The trio was composed between 1879 and 1880. When one considers how much was happening during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, it would be easy to dismiss it as a slight, if not pedantically cerebral, work. However, music does not live as marks on paper; it lives through what the performers do with those marks. If Romasevich was the motivating force in that transition from abstract marks to concrete sonorities, his motivations were well reflected by his colleagues. The trio may have gotten off to a slightly innocuous start; but, by the final movement, the players had made it clear that they had tapped into a new mother lode of musical expression, as individualist in nature as the works by both Crumb and Brahms would also show themselves to be as the rest of the program unfolded.