Putting a musical program together is always a challenge, but it’s one thing on paper, and another live, in front of people. The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra’s Silence of the Wolves program, which it performed a couple of weeks ago at San Francisco’s Old First Church was a curious one. Was it about wolf tones, or the devil’s interval–the tritone –which has more or less been the foundation of modern music since Schoenberg and his school began to exploit it? Or was it about the West, and San Francisco’s being on the wild edge of the continent, which its music director and co-founder composer Mark Alburger implied in his opening remarks from the stage? It seemed to be vaguely and particularly about all these things, and its contents varied considerably in tone, content, and impact. But thankfully no one was thrown to the wolves.

Loren Jones’ Wolf Wood, which he described as ” a solo piano piece inspired by the music of Eastern Europe, ” sounded to these ears like one of Satie’s evocative miniatures, especially in its opening, which was followed by lush yet still transparent variations , which Jones, on piano, played movingly. John Beeman’s 2 movement  Fancy Free , with the composer on double bass, was carefully written and expressive; its most striking sound image being a sequence of unison rising fourths near the very end.

But what was one to make of Cindy Collins’ Kinesthesia which she described from the aisle — there were no program notes –as being about physical states of mind she’d felt? There’s nothing wrong with musical autobiography if the piece justifies it, but Collins ‘ didn’t seem to. We’ve all had vague or unfocused moments but these don’t necessarily make for an absorbing experience when made into music. Collins did however produce at least one arresting image — a viola/cello drone, played with great concentration by Nansamba Ssensalo and Areilla Hyman, which slowly changed pitch, and evoked an acute sense of disquiet. Davide Verotta’s  An Enticement of Silence, which began like an off pitch version of Ives’ 1906 The Unanswered Question, progressed into a series of reasonably varied harmonies and textures, but didn’t add up to much more than that. Our sense of our postmodern world as a chaotic place has produced some provocative music –John Zorn’s comes to mind–but Verotta unfortunately failed to make
anything as powerful, or succinct as his.

Lisa Scola Prosek’s Three Songs from her new opera Ten Days, Dieci Giorni, based on Bocaccio’s Decameron  was, as so often with this composer, full of surprises.  Transparently scored, clearly played, and vividly sung in English and Italian by soprano Shauna Fallihee, it said what it had to, then stopped . And the 16 person band — the largest complement of the evening — was obviously moved in several places. Conductor Martha Stoddard’s Cowgirl Rondo (with Stoddard sporting a Western handkerchief around her neck) for string quartet and double bass), was vigorous and fresh, though top honors in that department went to Darius Milhaud’s Chamber Symphonies #1 – # 3 ( 1917-22 ) whose polytonal moments barely disguised their very French folk-like structures.

The playing throughout –under Martha Stoddard and John Kendall Bailey–seemed both accurate and enthusiastic, though the more obviously complex pieces by Collins and Verotta suffered from Old First’s unforgiving acoustics — the walls are concrete, the outside brick. Maybe a an orchestra friendly adjustable partition behind the players would help?

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