Originally published on April 14, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
Last night’s Faculty Recital by trumpeter Scott Macomber of San Francisco State University was a tour of unfamiliar gems, where the one familiar work on the program was offered in an unconventional setting. For me the high point of the evening was the performance of the 1955 sonata for trumpet and piano by Peter Maxwell Davies. The last chance I had to hear Maxwell Davies in performance was about ten years ago, while I was on a business trip in Manhattan. A decade later it was nice to know that I could extend my acquaintance with his music through a trolley ride across San Francisco, rather than a jet across the country.
Maxwell Davies has a particular knack for delivering traditional forms through a contemporary grammar and rhetoric. He views his ten Strathclyde Concertos (composed for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra between 1987 and 1996) as being a “family” of concertos similar to the six Brandenburg concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, as a student of Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Earl Kim at Princeton University, he could approach Bach’s structures without embracing their tonal framework. The trumpet sonata, however, predates his trip to Princeton and dates from his student years at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he was one of the founders of New Music Manchester. It is a relatively brief work in which one can already hear his search for a rhetorical approach to delivering thematic material that moves beyond the usual tonal conventions. Much of the audience consisted of students who had to attend and write about recitals as part of a course requirement. I doubt that many of them appreciated this as the work of a composer just beginning to find his voice; but, for those of us who seek out every opportunity to hear Maxwell Davies, it was a refreshingly informative experience.
The Maxwell Davies sonata was preceded by the 1952 sonatine for trumpet and piano by Jean Françaix. Like the Maxwell Davies sonata, it is structured around traditional forms, turning to the Baroque, rather than the classical sonata. The three movements are a prelude, sarabande, and gigue (with a brief cadenza preceding the gigue). However, these forms are honored in little more than name; and Françaix approached them with a playful Gallic spirit that we would never expect to encounter in Bach. Françaix is far from one of the most profound voices of twentieth century music, but there is a confectionary quality to his light touch. Like any confection, his work has a place in our musical diet, as long as it is not consumed to excess. Most performers feel they are too serious to perform his music, which is too bad for both the performers and their audiences.
After the intermission Macomber offered performances of two vocal works. The first was a setting of the poem “The Song Unsung” by Rabindranath Tagore composed by Macomber’s accompanist, Stephen Damonte (completed in 1999). The second was Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen cycle of four songs. In both cases the program provided the texts. Obviously one could not follow the words precisely, but it helped to know what the texts were conveying while listening to the music. Damonte’s Tagore setting was performed on cornet, accompanied by both piano and viola, leading me to wonder if he had chosen Johannes Brahms’ two Opus 91 songs for alto, viola, and piano as a model. As Brahms had subtly applied a folk touch to these songs, Damonte offered only a slight hint of orientalism; but I am not sure that the cornet provided the right instrumental color for that hint. Similarly, it took a bit of adjusting to try to hear the character of Mahler’s rejected lover in the voice of Macomber’s trumpet. Only in the third song, “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer,” where the knife glows in fiery fanfare passages, did the trumpet really capture the spirit of the text.
The evening ended with the Opus 18 sonata for cornet and piano by Thorvald Hansen. This work was very much in the spirit of nineteenth century composition, reminiscent of the rhetoric of Robert Schumann. My ear still lacks the experience to appreciate the difference between a trumpet and a cornet, so I cannot really grasp why Hansen made this specific choice. However, it was an upbeat way to end the evening; and Macomber was certainly true to that spirit.