The gulf between pop music and “serious” or “new music” can be a big one, and the first concert of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players 2014-15 season TenFourteen set this in high relief. Put another way, the pleasure principle tends to be the guiding light in pop music which isn’t always the case with new music which often tries to be dark or “profound”, or as my late friend Virgil Thomson once observed ” composers look at the history of music as leading up to them,” so it may as well be “heavy.”
George Crumb is an obviously gifted and highly regarded composer whose place in music history seems secure today, and his SFCMP’s commissions “Yesteryear “( 2013 ) and “The Yellow Moon of Andalusia ” (2012) were strong entries in his catalogue. The first was compact and mysterious with sudden eruptions of violence from extra busy percussionists William Winant and Nick Woodbury, and impressive contributions from Kate Campbell on amplified piano, and soprano Tony Arnold whose vocal text was a singularly dull fragmentation of Francois Villon’s eponymous poem. The second, which continued Crumb’s vocal/ instrumental settings of the poems of Garcia Lorca, which began with his landmark 1970 “Ancient Voices of Children” had a wonderful, timeless sense of space, and was beautifully realized by Arnold and Campbell, though his 1962 “Five Pieces for Piano ” came off as a stale and unmotivated codification of new techniques — playing within the piano — which were novel and exciting when Cage first used these gestures.The young Lebanese pianist-composer has absorbed this now common performance practice into his own work which is always vital because, though he’s very cerebral and knows the standard piano rep backwards and forwards, he doesn’t write “thinking” but emotional music.
And speaking of thinking Georges Aperghis’ solos “Recitation 9 ” and ” Recitation 10″ ( both 1977-78) , though perhaps trying hard to be a sort of emotional breakdown ala Artaud’s “La Peste”, which Nin recorded in her Diary, came off as “thought” music, despite the obvious complexity of the writing and Arnold’s spectacularly engaged performance. It was like Gertrude Stein without her wit and gift for multiple /ambiguous meanings.
Things didn’t get much better in Elena Ruehr’s SFCMP commission written for clarinet, violin, cello, harp, guitar, and percussion “it’s about time” (2014) which sounded superficially “pop”, meaning accessible, but didn’t add up to much despite the players’ obvious enthusiasm for its quasi classical-baroque sound and SFCMP’s Steven Schick’s alert conducting.
Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s 2014 SFCMP four-movement commission “Corporea” was dedicated to her country’s diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldivar, who helped save thousands of Jews, exiles from Franco’s Spain, and those escaping the Third Reich, from certain death. It had a welcome but unforced gravitas and lightness and seemed to easily inhabit both the pop and new music worlds. Solidly grounded in colorful yet expressive popular gestures — think Revueltas, or Julian Orbon — yet classical-modernist in layout and content, with a very affecting yet contained third movement adagio. And the audience which was more or less forced to sit on their hands for most of the concert rose to their feet and gave it rapturous and much deserved applause.
You don’t have to wear a hair shirt to be “serious. ”