Wednesday, October 23, 2019

concert reviews: Bacewicz and others

It was a busy concert-going weekend. The main event was Bard Music West's sort-of-annual composer festival. Like last year's, this consisted of three chamber music concerts over two days in a tiny church up at the tip of the Noe Valley deep in a residential district of San Francisco. Last year's honoree was Henry Cowell, this year was Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), generally considered Poland's greatest female composer. (Judging from the speakers at the festival, the name can be pronounced various ways, but the one I found most congenial was Ba-SHEH-vitz.) I wasn't very familiar with Bacewicz, but I had heard of her, and I'd heard some of her music. Much of what I'd heard, like her Concerto for String Orchestra, was sinewy conservative modernism just the way I like it, rather resembling late Bartók of his exilic period.

So I was looking forward to this, but what I got was not what I was expecting. Bacewicz started out as a neoclassicist, then after WW2 was affected by a combination of shell shock (she'd been in Warsaw) and Soviet cultural oppression (this is when the Concerto for String Orchestra came out), until the international music festival of 1956 revealed to Poland what had been going on in the west, and the Polish composers got all ultra-modernist and skanky. Bacewicz was far more restrained than Penderecki or Górecki, both much younger than she, but her subsequent music was definitely influenced.

I missed the first program, on her earlier years, and the only piece that really appealed to me from the rest of it was her String Quartet No. 4, another postwar work, played brilliantly by the Tesla Quartet, one of the best groups from my first visit to Banff. They'd have made an even bigger hit there if they'd played this then. There was too much of virtuosic solo music for violin or piano for Bacewicz herself to play, all of it nonstop and rattling. (Another attendee remarked to me that this sounded like very angry music, a surprising but understandable judgment.) Her later music became fragmented and disintegrated, and I found this true of the String Quartet No. 7, no matter how well the Tesla played it.

The programs included a lot of other music, by predecessors, contemporaries, and later composers influenced by the honoree, and such music had been the highlight of the Cowell festival. It was less so here, particularly for the new music. A brief documentary on Bacewicz from Polish television (subtitled) screened before the second concert, and readings from her letters between pieces, revealed that she disliked talking about her music, and this would have been good advice for the voluble composer of and violinist in a string trio that was commissioned for the festival. Her music, though, once we got to it, was actually pretty good, and so was a postminimalist piece for piano four-hands. Some other pieces, though, were solo music that sounded as if the performers were making it up as they went along. Worst was a piece for snare drum and taped electronics, which made me wonder why the live performer even bothered to show up.

The reason I missed the first concert was that I had a ticket to the Z.E.N. Trio at Herbst. The name is the initials of the performers, but as a word it was also a good description. You might not think that Brahms' Op. 8 piano trio, or Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2, would be good works to show performers zoning out, like the cat that just spent half an hour splayed belly-up across my lap, but they did their best.

Then, Sunday after the festival, I went on assignment to review the season's first concert of the San Jose Chamber Music Society. Having been, like half a dozen other presenters, kicked out of the Trianon when the owners decided to turn it back into a church (unanswered question: why? Plenty of churches host concerts at other times; see the Bacewicz festival among many others), they've found a better refuge than the unfortunate Hammer Theatre. I was a little nervous at the prospect of the rather voluminous concert hall in the university music building, where I've heard a few distant-sounding piano recitals from time to time (B. has also sung there, long ago), but the acoustic shell was cannily placed, and the string quartet seated in front of it had a good playing space.

This was the Calidore Quartet, and their performing style sounded so different from my two experiences with them at Menlo that I wondered if there'd been a personnel change. There hadn't, and they deserved and got a good review anyway. That Caroline Shaw is an immeasurably superior composer to some of those duffers on the Bard festival program did not escape my thoughts in the review.

Then on Monday, the same group was playing pretty much the same thing up at Herbst. Oh boy.

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