Saturday, April 7, 2018

concert review: The World of Henry Cowell

Back from Bard Music West's two-day Henry Cowell festival: three concerts (Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening) with pre-concert talks, all in a small church at the upper end of the Noe Valley, a residential district in San Francisco.

Friday I was good and took public transit. Drive to the end of the BART line. Then BART. Then a bus. Then walk: two blocks, steep uphill, in the rain. Reverse afterwards: at night, in the dark, in the rain.

Saturday it wasn't raining, but the transit runs even less frequently, so I drove, fortunately finding actual open parking spaces in this neighborhood, a rarity in the City. Took along a bag lunch in a cooler for dinner so I didn't have to venture out for that.

Unlike the OtherMinds Cowell festival about ten years ago, this one was as much around Cowell as on him, featuring a lot of music by composers associated with him, or music resembling his - either precursors or successors - as much as his own. The highlights were actually here. Pieces like Ruth Crawford's Three Chants for Women's Chorus, to nonsense texts in an arresting early modernist style, sung brilliantly by the women of the Volti chorus, or the under-rated Leo Ornstein's Suicide in an Airplane (dating from 1913 and probably one of the first ever attempts to depict mechanistic sound in classical music), played by the ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill, were the most memorable experiences of the bunch. Some early songs by George Crumb sound influenced by Cowell, with string-strumming and knocking sounds on the piano, but according to Crumb he didn't know Cowell's music at the time. Also sounding a lot like Cowell, with its use of vocalization by the instrumentalists, and quite eerily beautiful at times, was a new piece, The Sound of Your Solitude and Mine by Eugene Birman, composed in collaboration with a choreographer in commemoration of Cowell's works with Martha Graham. A piano piece by Carl Ruggles was actually consonant, say wha?

Some early Cowell piano pieces, including the famous Banshee (sound made by leaning over the soundboard and rubbing the strings), were well done, but his larger chamber pieces, the United Quartet and Homage to Iran, which ought to sound fun, were taken with too much dogged seriousness, a tone which was overall the hallmark of this festival. It could have used more wit and less awe. Nevertheless it was a good show, and I'm glad I went.

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