Life is competitive and composers are as competitive as anyone else–sometimes even more so. This thought came forcibly to mind when I heard two of the three composers–Stefan Cwik and Neil Rolnick (the third, Philip Glass, wasn’t even mentioned)–discussing their pieces with New Music Ensemble artistic director and conductor Nicole Paiment minutes before she and her musicians played three of their pieces as the concluding event of the BluePrint Transcending Senses Series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. When it comes to cattiness, composers often make the Beverly Hills Housewives look like fluffy little kittens.
Which is not to say that the music that followed didn’t have its charms. The opener Eight Miniatures for Chamber Ensemble (Hommage a Stravinsky) by Stefan Cwik (1987- ) was one of the winning works in the 2010 Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competition, performed here by bassoonist Paula Brusky–who served as a midwife in its realization–Michael Williams, flute, Stephanie Bibbo, violin, and the always super Keisuke Nakagoshi, made a strong case for Cwik’s collage of Stravinsky pieces. These included bits from L’ Histoire du Soldat (1918), with Bibbo’s lean, mean, superbly dry fiddling — the Suite Italienne (from Pulcinella) (1932 ), with a kind of running commentary of stamping chords from Le Sacre (1911-13) beneath. The quartet’s playing of Cwik’s “appropriations ” from Stravinsky were elegant, witty, even touching. Stravinsky used to say that life, meaning manners, is artificial , and of course was famous for writing pieces from behind the mask of his own persona. What that means is anyone’s guess, though Cwik’s pieces, judged from a cursory look at his site, seems to look–and sound better–when he hides.
Neil Rolnick (1947 – ) came off as charming and extroverted while Cwik seemed academic and reserved–he wore a black suit while Rolnick wore a “work shirt” and blue jeans. His equally arming and transparently scored Ansomia for full forces was a big–over 30 minutes–well-constructed and well-performed piece which exploits the “congnitive dissonances” between the senses–in this case smell–to witty, though far from profound effects. Oliver Sacks and Michael Nyman have, of course, made mini-careers from their supposedly deep– i.e easily marketable “findings”–from the disjunction between “seen,” “remembered”, and “heard.” Rolnick’s effort was amiable–he manned his MAC stage right which interacted with the orchestra, orchestral soloists, and singers–Maya Kherani, soprano, Carrie Zhang, alto, and Daniel Cilli–baritone–in real time–though a planned 160 minute version with orchestra, singers, plus projections, sounds like a long, and not necessarily more enlightening adventure.
The New Music Ensemble’s reading of Glass’ Concerto for Harpsichord (2002) should have been the highlight of the program, but harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis’s reading lacked spirit and it didn’t help that Paiment’s obviously under-rehearsed band was clumped from middle to stage right. The first 2 of the piece’s 3 movements are in a reflective but never static–E minor, and C minor and its G major final movement should go off like a Mannheim Rocket and bring down the house. But Paiment’s ministrations failed to differentiate and bring out Glass’ charming , gracious and imaginative humors–he knows his Baroque from the outside in. The ensemble’s timid “projection,” if that’s the word–made Glass’ changes sound arbitrary, so that his quotes from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Arjanjuez and Bach’s D minor Fantasia–a steal from Muslim Spain–went up in smoke. It doesn’t matter whether Glass’ concerto is a “worthy successor” to the De Falla or Poulenc, or a competitor to the Gorecki, or Nyman. But you don’t treat the work of any composer, and especially one of Glass’ importance, like a side dish.