San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco – review

Now in its 43rd year, the Bay Area’s oldest and most consistent new music organisation acquired an infusion of youthful energy two years ago when it engaged Steven Schick as artistic director. Schick himself may not be of a tender age, but he has introduced fresh ideas on how contemporary music can find a new generation of listeners within a curious and enlightened community. Forays into environmental music, chamber sessions and discussion groups have widened interest. Dialogue matters; Schick is one avatar of the new who really cares if you listen.

He is also an instrumentalist (a superb percussionist of national reputation), the first hired to lead these players in recent memory. It is no surprise therefore that the season’s opening concert highlighted a magisterial essay for six percussionists arranged for the performance in a hexagonal configuration. Timber is no misnomer for Michael Gordon’s remarkable 55-minute opus, composed for a Dutch dance company in 2009, here receiving its local premiere. The instruments are planks of lumber of differing lengths reposing on trestles. Pitch varies and the sound, produced by mallets and fingernails, was amplified through the hall to gripping effect.

These boards, says Gordon, are nothing less than simantras, instruments found in Eastern Orthodox religious circles and much exploited by composer Iannis Xenakis. The slowly changing rhythms provide a measure of interest, yet the resonances of these struck planks and the overtones create a rich sonic atmosphere that metallophones never could have provided. You find yourself alternately lulled and mesmerised. Considering that Schick and his five cohorts do not perform as an ensemble very often, their teamwork was admirable in all respects. Yet SFCMP declined to produce Timber as if it were the last word in music theatre. Simple lighting prevailed.

The aperitif for the evening was Two Cat Songs by the contemporary Russian composer Elena Langer to sardonic texts by her compatriot, the avant-garde satirist Daniil Kharms. Soprano Amy Foote proved an appealing interpreter and watching pianist Keisuke Nagagoshi and cellist Stephen Harrison conjure feline sounds from their instruments cleared the palate for the main course to come.

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