The S.F. Conservatory’s Contemporary Concert

By Paul Hertelendy, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of March 20-27, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 56

A quintet of living composers provided an ambitious set of instrumental works from a solo to a 40-plus-member wind ensemble knocking the roof off the S.F. Conservatory of Music. Here is the new genre of cross-over composer, of utmost versatility, creating everything from hiphop to DJ electronica to instrumentals to conducting. And their average age is under 40.

Representative of this emerging group is the Englishman Simon Dobson, who got a London Philharmonic commission before even finishing the conservatory, won composers’ competitions, played solo trumpet with bands, and, on this night, conducted a large ensemble in sneakers, which might have been a first in the history of the 93-year-old S.F. Conservatory.

To quote Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin’.

This second local concert by the group Curious Flights brought everything from modest workshop etudes to what composer Bobby Chastain called “violent upheaval,” on a large scale. There were almost more folks performing on stage than in the audience. But no one minded, except perhaps the box-office cashiers.

What impressed this listener was the podium competence exhibited by three of the composers—Dobson, Chastain of Berkeley, and Noah Luna of San Jose. In turn they conducted the sizable San Francisco Wind Ensemble, with a clear beat and good cueing. Another time you’d want to hear the SFWE in a more suitable hall than the highly reverberant stage here, where drum beats sound like cannon shots, and brass sounds like a deafening express-train horn. Clearly, the SFCM concert hall was designed with more intimate recitals in mind.

Each of the three contributed a world premiere for the March 19 concert. Chastain’s “Metanoia” offered fury and tranquility, with constantly shifting accents. The great momentum suggested an irresistible juggernaut, peppered with syncopation. Luna’s “The Wireless” sought to recreate the sonic jumble produced by early radio, largely rhythm-based, with flashes of dance music, and suggestions of static.

Dobson’s “Another World’s Hell” (US premiere), the longest of these at a quarter hour, drew on Huxley’s sci-fi classic of 1932, pouring out strong rhythms and microtones, with the high exuberance of an imagined futuristic dance hall.

Dobson also wrote the new “A Modulation on Plymouth Sound” for solo clarinet, plus electronics to depict the lapping of the sea. The contrasts of immense three-octave leaps to the extremes of the instrument as played by virtuoso Brendan Guy marked the opus, recalling bits of Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.”

Works of local stars Sam Adams and Mason Bates contributed too. The most performed of these will doubtless be the most conventional one, Bates’ tone painting “Red River” for a chamber quartet, plus distant electronics effects. Most memorable were the fluttering rivulets in the Red River conjured up by clarinet (Guy again), violin and piano.

Curious Flights performing at the S.F. Conservatory of Music March 19. Next concert: May 28. SFCM, 50 Oak St., S.F. For SFCM info: Go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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