By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO — Having commissioned more than 40 works in its 20 years of existence, the SOLI Chamber Ensemble generally steers clear of antique music, but new music inspired by antiques is fair game.
The opening concert of its 21st season Oct. 5 culminated in the world premiere of Carl Schimmel’s charming and witty Roadshow for Thora, in which the composer imagines how his young daughter might play with five toys that were featured on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow.
The concert, in the Alvarez Studio Theater of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, also offered music from the past five years by Anthony Brandt, Pierre Jalbert, and Karim Al-Zand. All three are on the faculty at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and members of the artistic board of Musiqa, a Houston music producer that shared with SOLI the 2013 CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award. From the more-remote past, if not quite antiquity, came a 1985 work by Steve Reich. The players were Stephanie Key (clarinet and bass clarinet), Ertan Torgul (violin), David Mollenauer (cello), and Carolyn True (piano).
Schimmel composed Roadshow for Thora as a sister piece to Roadshow for Otto — by no odd coincidence, the name of the composer’s son — which is scored for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano. For his daughter, he selected a stuffed bear that shakes and nods its head, a trotting horse, a pink pig on wheels, a clown magician, and a seven-member circus band. A photograph of each item was projected briefly on a screen near the musicians at the start of the relevant movement.
The music is richly descriptive. The “Yes No Bear” conveys clearly contrasting moods, the “no” side becoming a veritable tantrum at the climax. “The Ives Trotter,” referring to the vehicle made by a distant cousin of the composer Charles Ives, races on running figures interrupted by the crack of a whip — bang-pops thrown onto the stage floor by one of the musicians — and ends with a long neigh from the clarinet.
Schimmel imagines his daughter “Pulling the Pink Pig” with reverential love; the pig reciprocates with squeals from what appeared to be a stuffed porcupine (squeezed by the pianist). “The Clown Magician” had alternately nutty and creepy music, the latter calling for high harmonics from the strings and ghostly groans from the bass clarinet. “The Humpty Dumpty Circus Band” marches in from a great distance, steadily trading dignity for raucousness as it draws near.
Although the movements last only two or three minutes, each is a remarkably eventful and complete narrative, formed with care — like Webern, but with whoopee cushions.
Also dipping into the world of childhood was Al-Zand’s Swimmy (2010), with narration from the 1963 picture book by Leo Lionni. Texas Public Radio announcer Nathan Cone put on slippers and a sweater and sat in an easy chair to read the text. The story tells of the eponymous little fish who evades the fate of his schoolmates, who are all swallowed by a tuna. Swimmy meets assorted animals on his wanderings before finding a new school of little fish, who cower in fear.
Swimmy organizes them to swim collectively in the shape of a big fish, to keep the real big fish at bay. The piece does not end with a rousing chorus of “Look for the Union Label,” as one might expect, but Al-Zand deftly embodies in music the spirit, delicacy, and subtle colors of Lionni’s illustrations (projected on a screen for this performance). Especially delicious are the rhythmically cockeyed walk of a lobster and the serpentine gliding of an eel “whose tail was almost too far away to remember.”
Jalbert’s name has become familiar in San Antonio from a string of first-rate scores in performances by the San Antonio Symphony, SOLI, and players in the Cactus Pear Music Festival. He was represented in this concert by his Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano (2011). Like his other works, it is notable for expressing intense feelings in a disciplined way, and for pulling the listener along on a clear dramatic journey. The piano propels the first and last of its three movements with nearly constant churning. The middle slow movement opens with an extended, searching violin solo, rather like a concerto cadenza in character, which the piano and clarinet answer with a comforting balm.
Brandt’s Four Score, a 2014 SOLI commission, pushes thematic unity to a nearly obsessive extreme, but the eight-note descending-ascending motif takes on wildly different personalities, from yearning tenderness to (almost) boogie-woogie.
The concert opened with Reich’s delightful New York Counterpoint for clarinet/bass clarinet and pre-recorded tape — 10 tracks laid down in advance by the live performer. It would be a disservice to this music to place too great an emphasis on the procedural – Reich’s use of phase shifts as he adds layer upon layer of rollicking rhythm. The pleasures are visceral and sensual. One can’t not smile near the end when the recorded bass clarinet plays staccato pulses that sound for all the world like a conga drum.
Still, it is worth noting that the placement of New York Counterpoint at the beginning of this program underscored a remarkable generational change in American concert music. Reich’s music, in common with much music of the 20th century from serialism to neoclassicism to minimalism, was system-oriented, tethered in some way to a procedural concept or historical style. His younger colleagues turned decisively against systematizing. The only -ism one could identify in the later music on this program was pragmatism. It may have seemed for a time that the rejection of systems threatened to loose anarchy upon the world of music. The center cannot hold? On the evidence of this concert’s diverse but stimulating music of the past five years, that wasn’t a threat, but a promise.
SOLI repeats most of the program (replacing New York Counterpoint with works by Marcus Karl Maroney and Anna Clyne) on Oct. 10 as part of the opening week of the new Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH).
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.