Last night the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) hosted the latest in their series of Special Events programs. This was a recital to celebrate the 80th year of composer Terry Riley featuring the Del Sol String Quartet of violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. Both Lee and Bates are SFCM alumni, the former having graduated in 1993 and the latter in 2007.
The major work on the program was the world premiere of a quintet Riley composed for guitar and string quartet entitled Dark Queen Mantra. The guitarist was another SFCM alumnus, Gyan Riley (’01), also the composer’s son. This new work was complemented by two of the many Riley compositions that were recorded by the Kronos Quartet, an interleaving of a slow jazz ballad entitled “The Wheel” with the complex rhythms of “Mythic Birds Waltz.” The program also included Mas Lugares (more places) by Stefan Scodanibbio, one of Riley’s close friends and a frequent collaborator prior to ALS tragically taking his life about half a month before his 56th birthday on January 8, 2012. The “overture” for this program was “Calligraffiti” by Huang Ruo, whose chamber music had been performed by Del Sol in the summer of 2014 in conjunction with the premiere of his opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen at the Santa Fe Opera.
As was previously observed, the title “Calligraffiti” superposes the refined subtleties of Chinese calligraphy with graffiti, a willful act of defacement often in the interest of aggressive political expression. Huang draws upon harshly dissonant sonorities and simultaneities (calling them “chords” would connote a syntax based on harmonic progression, which is definitely not part of the composer’s agenda). However, his pitches are frequently subjected to subtle microtonal fluctuations, suggesting the subtleties behind every brush stroke in Chinese calligraphy.
Del Sol was clearly sensitive to the opposition of these two approaches to performance. The result was a clear and sensitive account of Huang’s score with much to engage the attentive listener. For a “first contact” experience, listening tended to require a “period of adjustment.” However, the confidence behind Del Sol’s reading was sufficiently compelling to draw the listener into both the tensions and the subtleties of Huang’s world. As an “overture,” “Calligraffiti” did much to “warm up” the “mind behind the ear” for the selections that would follow.
Thus, Mas Lugares is characterized by its own opposition of past and present. In this case the past is captured through three madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi reconceived in terms of the many different sonorous qualities that can arise from string performance. These paraphrases then alternated with two original movements that provide both sonorous and rhetorical context to Scodanibbio’s approach to rearrangement. Notes by Charles Amirkhanian for the program book described the pieces as “an ingeniously rambling suite in five sections;” but there was nothing rambling about Del Sol’s approach. The listening experience could be likened to an art museum in which contemporary approaches to architecture and design provide a setting for the examination of works of the past. In this case it is Monteverdi’s music, stripped down to the raw essentials of his counterpoint, that is “on display;” and it is through Scodanibbio’s framework that the listener comes to grasp the “exhibit.”
Opposition was also very much in play in the contrasting rhetorics of “The Wheel” and “Mythic Birds Waltz.” Riley’s decision to interleave them, rather than have they played as a two-movement suite, was an ingenious one. Kreith’s notes for the program book begin by observing that “Mythic Birds Waltz” “never actually breaks into a waltz.” A previous account of Del Sol playing this music suggested that it was the waltz that was “mythic,” while, through the figures of some of the motifs, the birds were more “real.” However, the heart of the music resides on the polyrhythms that emerge from the superposition of repeated structures, resulting in complex textures reminiscent of Riley’s early days at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In that respect the more familiar jazzy rhetoric of “The Wheel” serves as a dialectical opposition that balances against all of that complexity. The result of the synthesis is a strong sense of give-and-take that is almost improvisatory in its nature.
To some extent that same sense of give-and-take established the relationship between guitar and string quartet in Dark Queen Mantra. The Hispanic style that pervades this piece’s three movements recalls the Spanish influence on the guitar quintets by Luigi Boccherini; but, of course, Riley’s language is a far cry from Boccherini’s along just about every dimension. Nevertheless, there was a sense that the guitar part never quite fit in with the four voices of the string quartet. The guitar tropes were clearly established, and Riley knew how to deliver them with the most fitting execution. However, the strings never quite responded to those tropes, suggesting that the composer may decide to revisit these score pages and see if they need a bit more fine tuning.