The late, great British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (to those who don’t know the technology)”. A similar assertion can be said to be true of music. New music is a large and diverse repertoire that is difficult to navigate without some sort of guide to put those new sounds in context. And Charles Amirkhanian has, via his years as music director of KPFA and his stewardship as Executive and Artistic Director of Other Minds (among the many hats he wears) has provided such guidance for interested listeners to new music since at least 1969.
In an unanticipated gesture of magnanimity there was, at the will call table, not the usual “items for sale”, rather there was a lovely free tote bag and a large selection of OM CDs there for the taking. Suffice it to say, I and many others went home heavier than we had arrived.
He and his hard working team (Blaine Todd, Associate Director; Mark Abramson, Creative Director; Liam Herb, Production Director; Adrienne Cardwell, Archivist; Andrew Weathers, Recordings Director; Jenny Maxwell, Business Manager; and Joseph Bohigian, Program Associate) have provided guides for adventurous listeners that have included interviews with musicians and composers, a record label dedicated to new music, and live lectures and performances of creative new music from all over the world. The annual Other Minds Festival (the 26th was presented earlier this year) has brought in a cornucopia of stellar performers with a knack for finding stars at the outset of their careers. Other Minds at 30 is truly one of the great joys of San Francisco and it’s environs.
This evening was one of the lecture recital variety. Kyle Gann, composer, writer, critic, musicologist, OM alum, and vice president of the Charles Ives Society was brought in to provide the lecture portion of the evening. In addition, this event was held at a major temple of new music in the Bay Area, Mills College (actually Amirkhanian’s alma mater). The beautiful Littlefield Concert Hall itself displays the striking work of California architect, Julia Morgan. Artistic spirits past and present were undoubtedly here this night in the history of this place as well as those artistic spirits present in the audience.
The program began with a brief discussion among Mr. Amirkhanian, Professor Gann, and maestro Hamelin. Then Gann took his place at the lectern and Hamelin took a seat at the piano where he had graciously agreed to perform musical excerpts to illustrate Gann’s lecture. Actually Gann has written a definitive and very readable book on the work destined for performance on this night. “Essays After a Sonata” (2017), the title a gentle pun in homage to composer Charles Ives who (in an unprecedented move) wrote a little book titled “Essays Before a Sonata” as a means of introducing his landmark Second Piano Sonata.
In addition to his wonderful book, Gann has had a long interest in the literature of the so called “Transcendentalists” who are the subject (or at least subtext) of this music. He even went as far as to suggest specific literary references implied in the music. The Second Sonata “Concord, Mass., 1840-60, (written 1904 to 1915 with several subsequent revisions) is in four movements titled, “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”. Gann provided a few concise illustrations in a rather brief talk that provided just enough context to assuage the uninitiated (if there were any in the audience, lol). Hamelin coordinated most amicably and then there was a short intermission.
Marc-Andre Hamelin (http://www.marcandrehamelin.com) was born in Montreal and is now based in Boston. His discography consists of over 80 albums. My own introduction to his artistry was his first release in 1988 of William Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Twelve New Etudes (1977-1986) and Stefan Wolpe’s “Battle Piece” (1943-47). His web site is worth your time and gives an idea of the sheer scope and acumen of his repertory choices. In fact his most recent releases include more from William Bolcom and a disc of his own compositions. In fact he gives fine performances of music from Mozart and Haydn to the present. Hamelin has performed the Concord Sonata numerous times and has recorded it twice. He performed this gargantuan work entirely from memory.
Hamelin gave an extremely focused and convincing performance, an exercise of both intellectual and physical stamina. The audience, due to their reverence for Ives, Hamelin, and the spirits present in the hall, sat in rapt attention with nary a squirm nor a cough (well, maybe one cough) to interrupt the flow of this landmark work of American modernism. Such was Hamelin’s thrall. The piece goes through a wide dynamic range and the soft pianissimo resonances could be heard as clearly as the Beethoven-esque heroic fortes. Hamelin took two curtain calls to a standing ovation of a very appreciative audience. Gann quipped at one point that he uses Hamelin’s Hyperion recording of the Sonata in his classes. It was easy to see why.