Pianist riffs on Radiohead; eighth blackbird fly high

By Manasi Vydyanath

A brilliant, thought-provoking concert that left very little to chance, Contempo’s performance last Tuesday was as meticulously structured as a Bach fugue. The evening was a double bill: the first half featuring classical music, and the second a jazz-inspired piano recital by the mesmerizing Brad Mehldau. The classical repertoire was something of a reprise—all the pieces had previously been presented on various occasions—and the programming tended to veer slightly toward the canonical, but by no means did that detract from its interest. It was rather like re-reading a superb novel; one knows precisely what is going to happen next but derives a unique pleasure from the familiar, inimitably crafted sentences.

The Pacifica Quartet began with George Crumb’s Black Angels. This dark essay in 13 movements took the composer nearly a year to complete and is based on a huge, arch-like structure suspended over the three Threnody episodes. The work is divided into three parts, usually viewed as a metaphysical representation of a soul’s fall from grace (Departure), philosophical annihilation (Absence), and eventual redemption (Return).

The very first movement exposes the work’s bold, direct sensuality. Entitled The Night of the Electric Insects, it plunges the audience into an alien world fraught with bending, twisting pitches, perilously implicit harmonies, and hysterical fragmentation. The music swells and heaves without direction in an expression of ultimate uncertainty. Afterwards there comes a silence, and the protagonist begins his journey. Crumb’s characteristic, unconventional instrumentation takes the piece into eerie realms. Water-tuned crystal glasses, maracas, and gongs are used to create a highly surrealistic effect; the performers are called upon to chant, whisper, vocalize, and shout. As the work progresses, the episodes become increasingly isolated. They seem like a cascade of beginnings and endings, with no real development. What starts out as a portrait descends into pointillism, and the notes become more and more meaningless.

The musical space in the Absence is carved out like a Cantor set, resulting in frighteningly structured randomization. The gentle, soothing B-major tonality of God-Music and the linear counterpoint of Ancient Voices bring the work back together, but the despair keeps intruding. The violin’s sharp, uncalled-for laments and the sudden note produced by the violist’s bow upon the gong, for instance, serve as constant reminders of what had to be borne before such peace was achieved.

The Pacifica brought out the horror of the work magnificently—their impeccable intonation, timing, and sheer, expressive energy were palpable throughout. They literally vivified the piece with superbly balanced tension and release. Their dynamics were perfectly gauged. Masumi Per Rostad and Simin Ganatra’s passages played on the bridge, pianississimo (ppp), were brilliant. However, were I to nitpick, I would say that their fermatas were slightly overwrought at certain points. For instance, the extent of the pauses in the Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura made it seem curiously incomplete and not altogether by design. There is indeed a fine line between an effective emptiness and gaping chasms, and the players sometimes appeared to cross into the latter. On the whole, however, the piece was highly effective.

The second piece was Chen Yi’s Qi, scored for flute, cello, piano and percussion. This work was commissioned by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the New Music consort of New York, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. In Yi’s own words: “I try to use a mixed combination of Western instruments to create the sound from the East, to express my feelings of the Qi abstractly—it’s so untouchable, so mysterious, but so strong and powerful. It melts into air and light; it’s like the space in Chinese painting; it’s filled into the dancing lines in Chinese calligraphy; it’s the spirit in a human mind. In my composition I translate my general feeling of the Qi— the element of nature—into my musical language in a quite free and slow tempo. There are also exaggerated textures with tension, in which I try to sound the inner voices and spirit of human beings, to experience this eternal power.”

The work was performed by the chamber music group eighth blackbird, in what can only be described as a mesmerizing performance. Matthew Duval brought a coruscating energy to the percussion sections; his part in the piece was one of an overbearing, opinionated tyrant who ruthlessly interrupts, truncates, and alters the thoughts evolving in the piano and flute sections. He played it to perfection. Pianist Lisa Kaplan created a tense, spiky, tightly knit texture that ran in counterpoint to Molly Alicia Barth’s liquid flute. The final passages of this work were perhaps the most powerful in the entire concert.

Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings was the last classical piece to be performed, a setting of excerpts from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. It is scored for soprano and small chamber ensemble, and the setting is strikingly evocative. The first movement involves mono-pitched chanting over roiling harmonic and timbral textures; the second is one of desperate longing. The soprano in Tuesday’s performance was able to capture the varying, scintillating moods in the work. However, her voice did not seem able to project past the instrumentalists, and she was often drowned out by them. This obscured her enunciation and upset the textural balance that the work calls for. The orchestral players, led by Cliff Colnot, played brilliantly, if a shade too loudly. He created and maintained beautiful dynamic gradations, sharp relief between the woodwinds and the string, and soaring lines of independent melodic counterpoint.

The second half of the concert was exclusively given over to Brad Mehldau in a solo piano recital. He presented a sparkling succession of pieces, including a Thelonius Monk Ballade known simply as Monk’s Mood, some of his own compositions (the lovely Paris) and some works by Radiohead (Knives Out and Paranoid Android.) He segued pieces into each other, improvised upon them, and introduced his reflections, little personal asides, and wonderful harmonic innovations. His textures and harmonies were subtle and ever changing; he would present the same chord progression in n different ways, each with its own nuances, its own connotations, and its own private history. He played with his cadences—extending them, elaborating upon them, and introducing a subtle minor twist into what was to be a conventional ending. That hint of spice would instantly transform a banal passage into something mysterious, glimmering, and worth investigating.

His technique, needless to say, was superlative and unobtrusive, as only the finest technique can be. Mehldau presented to us a portrait of a gifted raconteur, someone who can endlessly spin out a tale by the fireside, someone who is fascinating, long-winded, and Herodotus-esque in his imagery. The leisure and piquancy of his performance was reminiscent of a conversation written by Oscar Wilde and infused with Saki’s astringency. It was the perfect end to an altogether exquisite evening.