Back in June of 2011, when clarinetist Brenden Guy was just beginning to prepare imaginatively diverse recital programs, he stressed that the music for the evening would be “English,” rather than the broader category of “British.” That distinction would continue through the first season of his Curious Flights concert series, particularly with its focus on the music of Benjamin Britten and the lesser known Edwin Roxburgh. Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Curious Flights launched its 2015–2016 season, getting the jump on Labor Day with a program entitled An English Portrait.
There is a minor nit to pick here. A more suitable title would probably have been An English Gallery. Such was the diversity of offerings that Guy prepared for the evening. While the music itself was relatively concentrated within the first half of the twentieth century, it involved the efforts of six different composers with distinctively different styles expressed through an extensive diversity of instrumental and vocal resources. These works may have “shared the gallery” through geographical commonality; but the beauty of the program lay in its variety.
This included variety on the level of durational scale. The second half of the program was devoted to two three-movement compositions. The first of these, Arnold Bax’ sonata for two pianos, performed by Peter Grunberg and Keisuke Nakagoshi, was the more expansive. Orchestral tone poems made up a large portion on Bax’ catalog, most of which involved rich instrumental resources summoning up memories of ancient legends. That lush rhetoric also found its way into this sonata, expressed instead through more abstract forms.
Indeed, the textures were so thick that both spatial and visual cues were necessary to sort out the threads of the fabric. Fortunately, it was readily apparent that both Grunberg and Nakagoshi where committed to providing a clear account of this score. That involved a solid grasp of the exchanges that provided the score with much of its forward-moving rhetoric. The applause that greeted the end of the first movement suggested that many may have thought the entirety had just been played as three uninterrupted movements. However, there was more to come, including a decisive sense of finality to wrap up the final (Vivace e feroce) movement.
This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 1, a sinfonietta that was also in three movements. In this case the distinction of the three movements was far more evident, and the instrumentation was far more transparent. Basically, it involved the superposition of a wind quintet (Bethanne Walker on flute, Jesse Barrett on oboe, Guy on clarinet, Kristopher King on bassoon, and Mike Shuldes on horn), a string quartet (violinists Tess Varley and Baker Peeples, violist Jason Pyszkowski, and cellist Natalie Raney), and a bass (Eugene Theriault). In contrast to Bax’ sonata, this was music in thematic material frequently unfolded through striking changes in sonority.
Guy himself had conducted this piece at the conclusion of his 2011 program. This time the group, the Curious Flights Chamber Ensemble, was led by John Kendall Bailey. He led with a keen sense of the exchange and interleaving from which melodies emerge. Through this early work one can already recognize Britten’s fascination with counterpoint and the extent to which harmonic progression is less a driving force and more an emergent property of Britten’s uniquely conceived contrapuntal fabrics.
Guy also performed during the first half of the program in music by Herbert Howells, his Opus 31, which he called “Rhapsodic Quintet.” The music was scored for clarinet and string quartet, whose members were all One Found Sound players: Christopher Whitley and George Hayes on violin, Danny Sheu on viola, and Laura Gaynon on cello. Like his distinguished predecessor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Howells clearly appreciated how the clarinet has three registers, each with its own distinctive sonorous qualities. Howells scored the instrument accordingly to engage with violin, viola, and cello sonorities, each on its own unique terms, all within the scope of a single episodic movement.
The remainder of the program was vocal. Pianist Miles Graber accompanied soprano Julie Adams in John Ireland’s six-song cycle, Songs Sacred and Profane. Ireland brought together text sources from Alice Maxwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and W. B. Yeats. These were all highly-polished verbal expressions, and Ireland had his own informed way of approaching each of these authors. However, because the language itself was seldom straightforward, the serious listener would have benefitted immensely from having those texts reproduced in the program book. These were not poems to be read casually, and Ireland clearly knew this.
The first half of the program concluded with three short choral pieces by Gerald Finzi (“My Spirit Sang All Day”), Britten (“Shepherd’s Carol”), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (“Valiant for Truth”). The Finzi selection was the most direct and was well served by the clarity of the St. Dominic’s Schola Cantorum under the direction of Simon Berry., Texts were provided for both the Britten (W. H. Auden) and the Vaughan Williams (John Bunyan). Auden’s was deceptively simple; and Britten treated it as such, making for the lightest selection of the evening. Bunyan was far more brutal and was given an intensely sobering account by the chorus.
Taken as a whole the evening amounted to a richly extensive journey through a repertoire that probably involved quite a few “first encounters” for most listeners; but, as Guy organized it all for last night’s program, it was definitely a journey worth taking.