Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the 2012–2013 BluePrint season of the New Music Ensemble, under the direction of Nicole Paiement, continued with its second concert featuring the work of Latin American composers. The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Chris Pratorius’ madrigal setting of the last love poem in Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (twenty love poems and a song of despair). (Pratorius is a Californian of Guatemalan descent.)
Those who follow this site regularly will recognize that this has been a weekend of “high” literature: Vladimir Nabokov on Friday and Neruda on Saturday. The poem that Pratorius set, “Poema XX,” is one of his most famous achievements, all the more so when one realizes that he published it at the age of twenty. It is a text through which even those not familiar with Spanish can appreciate his status as a Nobel laureate. His inventive use of repeated phrases reflects the intricate structures of Renaissance verse without ever mimicking any specific model. Yet within that formality lurks the intense expressiveness of lost love.
Pratorius clearly understands both the sophistication and the passion of this poem. One could appreciate this before his first notes were performed, simply because he took the trouble to provide his own English translation of the text. He wanted his audience to be drawn into Neruda’s words as compellingly as those many Latin American readers who had committed this text to memory.
On the music side Pratorius’ program notes cited Claudio Monteverdi as his primarily source for models, hence his decision to call his composition a madrigal. However, while we tend to appreciate Monteverdi most for his capacity to translate the expressiveness of text into an equally expressive vocal line (or lines of counterpoint), the most salient feature of Pratorius’ setting is his striking approach to instrumentation. In addition to a harp, with its bardic connotations, the only strings are individual parts for violin, viola, and bass. The bass is particularly prominent for the dark shadows it casts over the ensemble, while the absence of vibrato in the viola line recalls the earliest use of bowed string instruments to accompany secular song. There are two wind instruments, a mournful flute and an even more melancholy bassoon, whose isolated voice seemed to be less inspired by Monteverdi and more by Gil Evans’ use of that instrument in his arrangements for the famous Sketches of Spain album by Miles Davis.
In the midst of these rich sonorities, the greatest disappointment was the solo mezzo line. It seemed as if the student performer had not really taken the trouble to appreciate the impact of Neruda’s words, either in the Spanish she was singing or in the English translation Pratorius had provided. Her voice had all the appropriate technical qualities, and she seemed to be conscientious in her attentiveness to the notes Pratorius had scored for her. However, there was a distinct absence of rhetoric in her delivery, which, among other things, never quite seemed to grasp Neruda’s strategic use of repetition. What resulted came off more as a matter-of-fact declamation, rather than the profound cri de cœur captured so poignantly in the text.
Indeed, much of the remainder of the program also seemed to labor under matter-of-fact approaches to performance. The most effective of the other selections was probably the opening, “Aged Tunes,” composed for guitar and string quartet by the Argentine-born Jorge Liderman. This was written specifically for guitarist (and SFCM faculty member) David Tanenbaum and the Cuarteto Latinamericano. Last night Tanenbaum performed as guest soloist with a quartet of students.
What is most striking about this composition is the irony of its title. Liderman’s composition is rich with rhythmic sophistication to a point where its melodic elements almost pale into insignificance. One might take this as the impact of aging. These are tunes that have forgotten their melodies (perhaps rather like the forgotten laughter in one of Albert Giraud’s Pierrot lunaire poems). Yet, if the melodies fail to linger very much (if at all), the tunes continue through their rhythmic energy; and last night’s performance elegantly demonstrated the impact of that energy.
Less effective were the five short dances for wind quintet by the Mexican-born composer Mario Lavista. As I observed in my preview piece, Lavista described these pieces as “destined for five imaginary choreographies;” yet there was little sense of any spirit of dance in last night’s performance. Indeed, while the execution of the rhythms was capable, there was an overall lack of intonation that impeded the impact of both contrapuntal interleaving and harmonic progression.
That problem of intonation also seriously impacted the tension of the final work on the program, “Manchay Tiempo” (time of fear) by Gabriela Lena Frank. Referring again to my preview, Frank used this composition to capture the persistent tension of those in Peru who lived every day under the threat of attacks from the Sendero Luminoso (shining path) Maoist guerillas. The score realized that tension through the interplay of a large percussion section and a string orchestra. However, while the four percussionists articulated the tension through their precise control of both rhythm and dynamics, their impact was blunted by a rather dreary sound from the strings, much of which could again be attributed to neglect of intonation.
The terror wrought by Shining Path was known around the world long before “al-Qaeda” became part of everyone’s working vocabulary. As the child of a Peruvian mother, Frank was well equipped to convey that terror in the medium she knew best, that of the composition of music. Sadly, that problem of a matter-of-fact approach blunted the impact of what could have been a far more compelling listening experience.