SF Classical Voice: BluePrint Builds a Castle to Hersant

San Francisco Classical Voice
November 19, 2011
by Be'eri Moalem


Philippe Hersant
Philippe Hersant

Philippe Hersant was possibly the luckiest composer in the world Saturday night. In the season opener of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s BluePrint series, the 63-year-old French composer was treated to a two-hour concert of his own music by an all-star lineup of San Francisco’s best string players plus a deft ensemble of their students.

Cecily Ward and Tom Stone of the Cypress String Quartet opened the concert with a collection of short violin duos. Reminiscent of Bartók’s and Berio’s duos, each piece is a brief conversation about a musical subject and bears a Kafka-inspired title. Un Combat... featured glissandos trading off and fast bows whooshing by like chasing race cars. Le Silence de sirèns... (Empty fields) featured a kaleidoscope of fingered harmonics — an extended technique that attained a pure, glassy sound with an eerie quality. Yes, the ellipses are included as part of both titles. They match the way each piece ended: fading out in midthought, an unanswered question disappearing into the unknown.

Ward and Stone have played in the Cypress Quartet for over a decade, and their interplay was seamless. They’re obviously used to listening, blending, and responding to each other. Every turn of the phrase and each taper were carefully handled, and their sound color matched perfectly.

The Conservatory’s Chamber Choir joined Hallie Pridham as the protagonist on viola da gamba and Minyoung Kwon, offering guidance on the organ, in Hersant’s setting of Psalm 130, sung in German. “From deep affliction,” this psalm cries out to God, wondering in awe about his mysterious presence. This composition, too, hovered in misty wonderment: hazy chords in the choir, dissonant but beautiful, as the backdrop for a twisting lament in the viola da gamba. The choir achieved a ghostly sound, in contrast to Pridham’s warm, reedy sound.

Viola da Gamba Hot Once More

Interestingly, though the viola da gamba took a 200-year (more or less) hiatus from composers’ palettes, it’s been making a comeback in recent years as a legitimate contemporary instrument played without the irony of using an ancient instrument in new music. A linkage with the Baroque remains, but the instrument is sounding more like a fully capable modern instrument these days, as composers are ever on the lookout for new shades of timbre. The harpsichord is making a similar comeback, and will be featured in BluePrint’s spring concert. These instruments aren’t just for Baroque ensembles anymore.

Paiement elicited from the string orchestra the evening’s most thrilling sounds as they battled Levitz’s intense, middle-of-the-register sound.

A septet of players, on diverse instruments ranging from piccolo to trombone, played Hersant’s Songlines,a piece about the Aboriginal story in which the world came into existence through song rather than speech. Instead of Genesis’ “God said, let there be light” this would be “God sang let there be light.” Layers of musical instruments were gradually added to the texture, populating a musical ecosystem of sounds. Nicole Paiement and the students in the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble brought this world to life, again creating a texture that was both dissonant and beautiful.

Cecily Ward and Tom Stone
Cecily Ward and Tom Stone

Jean Michel Fonteneau played Sonate pour violoncelle seul, the best piece for solo cello that I’ve heard since the Bach Cello Suites. Hersant does the same thing that Bach does: turning what is usually a monophonic instrument into a polyphonic one, by jumping up and down the range of the instrument and activating the cello’s entire spectrum. The opening movement was probably the most emphatic statement of the concert, one of the few places where Hersant went for solid insistence as opposed to metaphysical wandering.

The women of the Chamber Choir returned to the stage for Wanderung,another choral setting in German, to Goethe’s text, also on a metaphysical theme. This piece, too, had an instrumental protagonist: Rufus Olivier (the younger) on bassoon. Situated in the balcony, “over all the summits,” to quote the text, Olivier had a one-on-one personal conductor to coordinate with Paiement and the choir on the stage below. Olivier was tasked with playing some interesting multiphonics that produced gritty beats. Wanderung had an effect similar to that of the psalm setting.

In the concert’s finale, Jodi Levitz performed Musical Humors, a viola concerto about mood swings (according to the program note), ranging from “the most profound melancholy” to a modest measure of “joy.” The title word humors here connects to the old meaning of that word: balance of emotions and its effect on health, and also the modern sense of the word (amusing). Wrapping up a concert of searching through “the most profound melancholy,” the piece ended with a relatively straight setting of a Scottish jig. This isn’t to say the viola concerto itself was without its desperate existential search. Paiement elicited from the string orchestra the evening’s most thrilling sounds as they battled Levitz’s intense, middle-of-the-register sound.

Nicole Paiement’s crystal-clear direction has a rare combination of a crisp, strict baton technique and physical motions that also have charm, even passion. Her ensembles, whether they be a string orchestra or a collection of odd instruments, responded with vigor. Indeed, the student ensembles sounded better than many professional orchestras in the area. With plentiful rehearsal time and a lifestyle dedicated to practice and the intense study of their instruments, the players are quite possibly in the top musical shape of their lives.

I had never heard of Hersant, but luckily his music can soon be heard again in the Bay Area, for the Cypress Quartet has commissioned a quartet from him for its annual Call and Response project. The work will be premiered at Herbst Theatre on March 16, 2012.