Concert Review: A Tale of Two Chamber Ensembles – SF Civic Center Blogspot

by Michael Strickland

San Francisco is in a golden age for contemporary music. Its current ecostructure of composers, performers, funders, writers, venues, and adventurous audiences is probably unrivaled in the world right now. Many of the artists live and work in the East Bay and Marin, though not so much the Peninsula where the major focus seems to be acquiring wealth while creating the sci-fi future that is bleeding into the present.

These thoughts were prompted by two different concerts on Monday and Tuesday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. When the school moved from 19th Avenue into Civic Center in 2006, the institution initially seemed frightened of the neighborhood, but they have relaxed and become an integral piece of the Performing Arts Center that now stretches from their campus at Market and Van Ness to the Opera House five blocks north.

The recent closing of the Veterans Building and its Herbst Theatre for retrofitting has been something of a blessing, forcing musical groups to venture further afield in the neighborhood. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (including left to right above Anna Presler, Kurt Rohde, Tanya Tomkins, and Leighton Fong) has long played in the second-story Green Room at the Veterans Building, which is a great site for a party but terrible for music due to the crappy acoustics. On Monday evening, they presented one of their mixed concerts of contemporary music with 19th century classics in the small (approximately 130 seats) Recital Hall downstairs at the Conservatory, and it was a delight.

The concert featured cellists Leighton Fong and Tanya Tomkins above in various configurations, starting with three wild "decimations" by Kurt Rohde of Bach Chorales for Odd String Quartet and Electronics, odd in this case meaning that the usual second violin is swapped out for an additional cello. The odd quartet, minus electronics, finished the concert with the 1894 String Quartet #2 by Anton Arensky, a disciple of Tchaikovsky and a teacher of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

The highlight of the concert was violist Kurt Rohde playing his own composition, ...maestoso...misterioso...for Amplified Violin, Viola and Assorted Objects with Anna Presler above. The Assorted Objects were tuned gongs, harmonicas, Chinese paper accordions, along with the players' own voices. There were also moments of live electronic looping, which seemed fraught with danger since there was a lot of unintended feedback in the first of the Bach chorales, and the tech guy had to re-plug and reorient the microphones on Rohde and his viola before he started playing the piece. I was close to the stage and started laughing, at which point Rohde broke the fourth wall and said to the audience, "You have NO idea." Even with all the electronics and Assorted Objects, the 12-minute piece was mostly soft and delicate while sounding simultaneously rich and complex. Rohde strikes me as one of the best composers in the world right now, and his performance with Presler was fearless.