Rating: 3 stars out of 5

sfSound’s latest concert on Saturday 23 Jan 2010 was headlined by Ligeti’s well-known Chamber Concerto, which closed the concert, and was preceded by 10 shorter premières by up-and-comping Bay Area composers, mainly students, but also including some interesting other perspectives, like Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier. This concept has some definite advantages. It affords opportunities to a lot of less experienced composers in a relatively economically way, while at the same time ensuring an audience for them by programming a new music “hit” like Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto.

However, the format also presents some challenges to audience and ensemble, because a lot of relatively diverse music is presented in the course of an evening. Unfortunately, this aspect didn’t receive the attention it should have, so while there were some great moments, there were also stretches of generic music that marred the evening and created the impression that we were somehow required to “earn” the Ligeti, as opposed to enjoying a well-rounded concert that built up to it.

To start, the Ligeti was very well done. This is a hard piece, full of microtones and delicate balances that require intense concentration and preparation on the part of the ensemble, and it was clear that their hearts were into it. It came off well and was a satisfying end to the concert, and there’s not much else to say about it. Properly done, this piece is always a winner and it was a good choice for sfSound.

There were also a couple of gems within the premières. David Coll’s Untitled II particularly stood out as a competent and interesting piece. He managed to balance extended multiphonic techniques in the clarinet with the violin and piano in a way that sounded whole; the clarinet didn’t sound like it was doing something unrelated to the other instruments, as is often the case when using multiphonics in an ensemble setting. And the musical form was convincing and elegant.

Similarly, Pen and Pencil Drawer by the composer going by the pseudonym of Canner MEFE was a strong piece, and managed to cover a lot of ground for a duet between oboe and clarinet. Most of the piece consisted of disconnected lines that met in dissonant rhythmic unisons at irregular intervals, but what really made the piece stand out was that it didn’t commit too dogmatically to this principle. Canner MEFE allowed him-/herself to stray musically as dictated by the materials, and this led to a rich development that was interesting from start to finish.

In contrast, many of the other pieces had a distinctive student-y flavour. Most stuck religiously to a pet technique or concept, giving the impression of etudes or composition exercises more than concert works. Tragically, a lot of these pieces can be summed up using a single new-music label each: sparse Webernesque Klangfarbenmelodie, or post-minimalist melodicism, or air sounds, or extended trills, etc etc. In fairness, all composers learn by imitation and experimentation, but placing these works-in-progress next to a masterpiece like the Chamber Concerto was not really fair either; they couldn’t possibly compete.

Another drawback of the format is that works by less experienced composers require more rehearsal and effort, because often the score translates the composer’s intentions imperfectly. By doing 10 such works, the ensemble set for itself a herculean interpretive task. And on top of that, sfSound clearly had to do a good job of the Ligeti—that was what was drawing the crowd. So they were really stuck between a rock and a hard place.

New music programming is one of the trickiest things out there, but getting it right is essential to the art form. Perhaps a better approach would have been to do a similar concert without the Ligeti, and then on a later concert reprogram the more successful student works again. That way, young composers get a chance to work with a high-calibre group, but they also don’t have to stand in the shadow of giants. And then the successful pieces can be presented again, later, in a context where they will shine, and where they make up part of a unified program. After all, the real test of a new piece is not whether it gets played, but whether it gets played more than once.