Examiner.com: BluePrint’s total immersion in the music of Philippe Hersant

November 20, 2011
Stephen Smoliar, SF Classical Music Examiner

Last night’s BluePrint project concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music consisted entirely of compositions by the Parisian composer Philippe Hersant, six works in all, three on either side of the intermission. Given how little exposure Hersant has received in the United States, this was a bold move on the part of Artistic Director Nicole Paiement. However, Hersant emerged as a composer with an accessible and engaging style, along with considerable diversity in his stylistic approaches. Thus, as introductions go, one could not have hoped for a better offering.

I found it particularly impressive that, while Paris has a long-standing reputation as an international center for music involving various forms of electronic enhancement, ranging from pioneering experiments in musique concrète up to current technologically-sophisticated activities at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), no electronics were involved last night. All the selections involved instrumental and/or vocal resources; and most of the underlying grammar was comfortably grounded in conventional notation. One might say that Hersant demonstrated just how much invention could still be applied to the most traditional of materials.

Much of this invention arises from Hersant’s willingness to accept that creation is a product of influences, rather than a highly abstracted synthesis of musical ideas from scratch, so to speak. Many of those influences have been explicitly acknowledged. Thus, the set of eleven caprices that opened the program (performed by guest artists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, the violinists of the Cypress String Quartet) were explicitly modeled after Béla Bartók’s 44 violin duos (Sz. 98). However, they were also influenced by the short stories of Franz Kafka; and each caprice has a fragmentary title taken from Kafka’s texts.

While Kafka tends to be darkly enigmatic, these short pieces are true to their label. Even when the title is reflective, there is always at least a trace of playful character, almost as if to suggest that behind all of that Kafkaesque brooding may have lurked the same sort of prankishness one encounters in Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus, while Bartók may have provided the model, the spirit was highly reminiscent of that vast collection of short piano pieces that György Kurtág collected under the title Játékok (games). Ward and Stone readily caught onto this game-like playfulness, even to the extent that their respective parts often seemed to be in competition. The result was an affable introduction leaving one curious about other works in Hersant’s repertoire.

These caprices were followed by the far more serious setting of the 130th Psalm (“Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!,” RSV), sung in German by the Conservatory Chamber Choir with instrumental parts for viola da gamba (Hallie Pridham) and small organ (Minyoung Kwon). This ensemble was conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. The music was composed in 1995 for a concert dedicated to Heinrich Schütz, and the German translation was by Martin Luther. Through both instrumentation and style, the music serves as a latter-day reflection on the German Baroque approach to making music and even incorporates a chorale setting of the text by Johann Sebastian Bach. Ironically, Bohlin came to the Conservatory immediately after having conducted a Schütz motet in Davies Symphony Hall and was therefore well attuned to the motivating context of this composition. The result presented a significantly different side of Hersant’s character that was no less engaging than his instrumental playfulness.

The first half of the program concluded with “Song Lines” for a chamber ensemble consisting of flute (Brandon Lepage), clarinet (Jeannie Psomas, also performing bass clarinet), trombone (James Ginn), percussion (Alex Wadner), cello (Patricia Ryan), bass (Eugène Thériault), and piano (Carlin Ma). The title comes from Bruce Chatwin’s anthropological studies of Australian Aborigine culture, specifically the creation myth based on the concept that everything in our world was sung into existence. “Song Lines” is not so much a reflection on this idea as it is an abstract meditation that seems to celebrate the breadth of creation itself through its uniquely diverse approach to instrumentation. One might say that the sense of creation emerged through the interplay of sonorities, in which case Paiement did an impressive job as conductor in managing those sharply diverse sonorities.

The second half of the program tended to mirror the first half in its use of resources. Instead of two violins we had cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau performing an unaccompanied sonata. With its four-movement plan this sonata was probably the most formally structured composition on the program. It was also offering that reflected back on Bach, perhaps the best known composer of extended solo cello compositions. However, the reflection was not on any of Bach’s six suites but on another of his chorales, “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” (through Adam came our fall). Fonteneau’s performance was highly absorbing, but Hersant’s score was far from transparent. This is music that requires more than a single listening for understanding, and the Conservatory is the perfect place to encounter subsequent exposure to this music.

Fonteneau’s solo was followed by another choral composition, “Wanderung” (wandering), this time for female voices with bassoon obbligato (guest soloist Rufus David Olivier). The bassoon line presented some of Hersant’s most adventurous sonorities, beginning with multiphonic blowing techniques through which the fundamental pitch is enhanced with selected upper harmonics. Once again the text set was German, this time Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Wanderers Nachtlied” (the wanderer’s night song). In this case, however, Hersant took a more fragmented approach to the text, using it to evoke a series of isolated impressions, all of which serve to support Goethe’s evocation of peace (which may well be the peace of death). Paiement’s conducting captured this moody quality, which was far more contemporary in spirit than Hersant’s Schütz-inspired Psalm setting.

The evening concluded with an extended work for solo viola (Jodi Levitz) and string ensemble (again conducted by Paiement). Once again, Hersant was influenced by the gamba; but this time that spirit was embodied in the viola solo. The title of the composition, “Musical Humors,” comes from a 1605 collection of gamba music by Tobias Hume. The title presumably refers to the four humors of Hippocratic medicine, each of which corresponds to one of the four temperament types (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic). However, these moods are not disclosed as systematically as they were in the music of Carl Nielsen or Paul Hindemith. Rather, Hersant seems more interested in the swings across these moods than the temperaments themselves, which seem to be established through citations of passages from Hume’s collection. Last night’s performance emerged as an energetic encounter between Levitz’ solo virtuosity and the expository context established by the string ensemble. The richness of the resulting sonorities contrasted particularly effectively against the less conventional sounds of the “Song Lines” chamber ensemble.

Taken as a whole, these turned out to be an excellent six-course sampling of Hersant’s work, definitely whetting the appetite for further performances.