Paul Hersh listed himself as pianist for last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. However, he performed in only one work of a program consisting of five compositions by Maurice Ravel. Thus, in many respects his major role was one of impresario in the interest of presenting compositions that are rarely heard, due to their highly unconventional instrumental demands. In order to offer these works, he recruited support from two members of the faculty, eight alumni, and ten students. That support included all members of Nonsemble 6, an ensemble originally formed by Conservatory students preparing a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
Even the most familiar work on the program received an unconventional presentation. This was the “Pavane pour une infant défunte” (pavane for a dead princess). At a chamber music recital one might expect this to be performed in its original piano solo version; but, instead, it was performed in an arrangement for piano trio by Christopher Pratorius, currently a lecturer in theory and group piano at the University of California in Santa Cruz. As is often the case, this shift in instrumentation brought out elements of detail that might be missed in both piano and orchestra versions, particularly regarding the interplay of melodic lines. Most evident were the ways in which Pratorius reserved the piano for the most “pianistic” gestures and his seamless approach to moving the cello line between solo and accompanying roles. All performers were alumni, Ian Scarfe on piano, Philip Brezina on violin, and Erin Wang on cello; and there is no doubt that, through Pratorius, they summoned new ways to listen to a piece that probably everyone in the audience thought they knew all too well.
Hersh then performed the Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) suite in its original four-hand version with student Jannie Lo, who has already begun to establish a concert career before entering the Master’s program. Of the five movements in this suite, the inner three are based on fairy-tale narratives. Hersh read the narrative summary for each, allowing listeners to appreciate just how programmatic Ravel’s music could be, whether through the sound effects of birds and Chinese instruments or in the conversational voices of Beauty and the Beast. The outer movements serve to establish scenes, not only for specific tales but also for the suite as a whole.
After these two relatively conventional instrumental settings, the sonorities moved into more adventurous territories. Harpist Emily Laurance, currently on the Conservatory faculty, was joined by a string quartet, clarinet, and flute for the “Introduction and Allegro.” She explained how Ravel had been commissioned by Erard to compose a piece that would showcase the virtuosity of the double-action pedal harp, prompted in part as a reaction to Claude Debussy having recently composed music for the Pleyel cross-strung chromatic harp. While Debussy’s composition scored the harp with a double string quartet, Ravel opted for a single quartet enhanced with clarinet and flute parts, affording greater diversity of sonority.
The second half of the program consisted of two collections of three songs each featuring Amy Foote, the soprano for Nonsemble 6. The first was the set of three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, a poet whose interest in words had less to do with their semantics and more to do with their “appearances,” both as the dark marks that impose themselves on a uniform white surface and the sonorities associated with utterance. Ravel was clearly more interested in the latter class of appearances and supported his soprano line with a small chamber orchestra consisting of piano, string quartet, two clarinets (with bass clarinet doubling), and two flutes (with piccolo doubling).
All members of Nonsemble 6 contributed to this performance. Apparently, there had been a plan to couple a performance of these three songs with Pierrot Lunaire, since both works push the envelope of meaning in poetic texts through their striking approaches to sonority. (Mallarmé had his own bizarre take on Pierrot, but this did not surface in Ravel’s selection of poems.) Ravel’s setting is perhaps a bit more accessible than Schoenberg’s, but this may simply be because his entire cycle is much shorter in duration. Also, Ravel was more content to let the soprano sound like a soprano, rather than experiment with her vocal potential.
Those experiments would begin to emerge in one of his last works, the three Chansons Madécasses (songs of Madagascar). This was particularly evident in the vocalizations of the second song, a war cry against white intruders (which was not well received by the work’s first audience). By contrast the final song is a lazy meditation on tropical climate, in which the heat of the day gradually gives way to a cooling breeze. This resolves into a final sentence, which is an injunction to prepare the evening meal. For this last line Ravel lapses into a declamation closer to speech than to music, thus conveying that the spell of the tropics has been broken.
For these songs Foote was joined by Nonsemble 6 colleagues Scarfe, Justin Lee on flute, and Anne Suda on cello. This provided an instrumental transparency that nicely suited the alien qualities of the text. For the most part Foote kept any physical dramatization to a minimum, letting the text have its own say through Ravel. As I recently wrote in a preview piece, this is a composition that Nonsemble 6 will feature in their coming French masterworks tour, which begins on February 24 at The Red Poppy Art House. This is definitely music that deserves more frequent exposure.