Last night in the Recital Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble began their 2014–2015 season with a program entitled Films and Interludes. As Artistic Director Anna Presler observed in her opening remarks, the program reflected back on days when music for silent films was provided by one or more live performers; and, on a program of short films, those performers would present interlude music while the reels were being changed. Only one of the films screened last night dated from those early days, while the composers on the program covered an extended span of time with Claude Debussy at one end to the three contemporary composers who created original works for three of the films.
Overall, however, the interludes made the deepest impressions, representing the work of three major twentieth-century composers, Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Henri Dutilleux; and, of those pieces, the most effective involved solo performances. Among them Jeff Anderle’s was the most compelling with a dazzling account of three short pieces for clarinet that Stravinsky composed in 1918. At the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, pianist Eric Zivian captured the hushed and nebulous rhetoric of tonally ambiguous clusters in “D’ombre et de silence” (shadow and silence), composed by Dutilleux in 1973 and eventually published as the first of a collection of three preludes. A similar sense of quietude was set by flutist Stacey Pelinka’s performance of Debussy’s 1913 “Syrinx.”
Zivian, with his duo partner Tanya Tomkins on cello, presented the only two “group” interludes on the program. The less familiar of these was the Modéré movement from three pieces for cello and piano composed by Nadia Boulanger in 1915 as an arrangement of music she had originally written for organ in 1911. While Boulanger was such a significant teacher that she is often credited as the inventor of American modernism, her own compositions receive little attention. As a result, it is difficult to tell whether this single movement was representative of her efforts; but it definitely had its own distinctive sonorities to establish differentiation from her contemporaries Debussy and Stravinsky.
More disappointing was the duo performance of Debussy’s cello sonata, composed in 1915 and one of his last pieces. While his performance of Dutilleux was well controlled, in this sonata Zivian succumbed too often to a rhetoric of bombast that was entirely inconsistent with Debussy’s plan for this sonata. While there are several key moments of grand gesture in the score, there are any number of sources of evidence that indicate that Debussy was being ironic; and, while the piano was his favored instrument, he certainly did not want it thundering the forte passages out of all recognizable proportion. Needless to say, this did not give Tomkins much to work with in trying to account for the cello portion of the duo.
Nevertheless, the musical interludes proved to be, on the whole, more satisfying than the film show. This seemed to be due to the fact that there was little more than juxtaposition of the product of a filmmaker with the score of a composer. In one case the music preceded the film. Marcia Scott’s “Bolinas” seems to have been created in the spirit of such juxtaposition, similar to the way in which Merce Cunningham’s choreography simply inhabited the same span of time filled by John Cage’s music. Scott’s film was screened against a performance of Cage’s “Music for Four” as realized by Pelinka, Tomkins, Anderle, and Phyllis Kamrin on violin, all four of whom were physically distant from each other. However, while Cage’s music created an environment that was as spatial as it was thematic, there was little on the screen to draw the eye away from the activities of the musicians.
This was equally the case for “Klatka Still,” where both music and film were inspired by an image from the 2006 World Cup and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko. Composer David Sanford gave a convoluted and confusing introduction to this concept. However, any reflection of that introduction in the film made for a challenging exercise for the viewer, while the duo performance by Pelinka and Zivian brought no enlightenment into the mix.
Far more straightforward was Sean Varah’s score for Caddie Hastings’ film “Borderline.” This was a solo cello composition played in conjunction with a video of a cellist with its own soundtrack of solo cello music (also composed by Varah). The result amounted to a dialog between the “live” cellist (Tomkins) and the recorded one (whose part was included in Tomkins’ score for reference). In this case, however, the interplay of these two voices was so compelling that the images proved to be more of a distraction than an enhancement of the experience.
The only really successful film effort was “A Trip Down Market Street.” Made just days before the 1906 earthquake, the four Miles Brothers (Harry, Herbert, Earle, and Joe) secured a camera to the front of a cable car on the old Market Street line, simply capturing on film a seven-minute trip ending at the turntable in front of the Ferry Building. This was viewed by last night’s audience with considerable amusement, perhaps from the recognition that traffic problems then were not that much different from the way they are now. In this case, however, the problem was that the film was so absorbing that the accompanying music by Gabriel Bolaños left hardly any impression at all.
The idea behind Films and Interludes probably seemed good when it was first proposed. It certainly was a bold experiment. The result, however, was yet another sobering reminder that experiments do not always turn out as expected.