The final concert of the San Francisco Symphony’s Mavericks festival began with Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, a classic example of first-generation minimalism. Performed from memory by members of the San Francisco Symphony’s percussion section (Jack Van Geem, Raymond Froelich, David Herbert, Tom Hemphill, and James Lee Wyatt III), the piece’s slowly adapting rhythms and layers of finely-tuned pieces of wood (claves) was the perfect way to settle in for the rest of the show. The percussionists were unfazed by some rather loud talking in the back of the orchestra section where a couple elderly patrons were confused about what exactly was going on, and which piece it was anyway.
The second part of the first half of the concert was the world premiere performance of Meredith Monk’s new work Realm Variations, performed Monk and her vocal ensemble with members of the symphony. The work focuses in on different “realms” in the ranges and timbers of the instruments/voices used. There were some especially spectacular moments of blending between Catherine Payne’s piccolo and Nadya Tichman’s violin. The hall (and the symphony’s blog devoted to the series on the mavericks site) was abuzz with people trying to guess the identity of the very large instrument right behind the harp. It was in fact a contrabass clarinet – as tall as the harp and dwarfing clarinetist Steve Sánchez. According to the program notes this instrument was used opposite the piccolo to balance out the low range of the ensemble.
Monk’s Realm Variations used the uniques collections of instruments in combinations based on range and sound quality to create whole new worlds (or realms) of sound. I particularly loved the combination of contrabass clarinet with Sidney Chen’s bass voice. Another was her use of the voices as instruments and instruments as voices: Monk indeed used each of the parts—whether for voice or an instrument—equally. The voice parts sang nonsense syllables (mostly vowels) that added to the texture without adding any meaningful text. The vowels Monk selected for this purpose worked beautifully, and helped to create a cohesive instrumental-vocal sound.
After intermission, came Foss’ Echoi for clarinet, cello, piano, and a wide array of percussion instruments. The piece was full of humor and unexpected uses of the instruments on stage. I especially enjoyed how the instruments passed lines back and forth, imitating the sound quality and character of whichever instrument had the idea first. One instance of this was when Peter Wyrick’s pizzicato bass line in the cello was taken over by the Denk, who played it on the piano, dampening the strings inside the piano to mimic the “pizzicato” sound. The hall bust into laughter at one point in the last movement when percussionist Jack Van Geem “went nuts” and, after running out of percussion instruments, began “attacking” the piano inside and out with his mallets, along with the “wrong” parts of several percussion instruments. Who knew that striking the “kettle” of a timpani could get such an interesting sound?!
Del Tredici’s Syzygy was played very well, especially by soloists Kiera Duffy (voice) and Nicole Cash (horn), who did a fantastic job. Both solo parts jumped by an octave or more with great frequency, and neither soloist missed a note. However, this final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks series, while the conclusion to a wonderful run of concerts featuring the “new classics,” felt like a bit of a let-down for me. I would much have preferred to end the festival on the exciting note of the penultimate concert, which overall had a much more exciting vibe, both from the stage and from the audience members…
Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist