As classical music ensembles strive to reach out to a broader audience, the search for different performing venues outside the traditional concert hall and church settings is a common goal among many. However, the 43 year-old concert series at Old First Concerts continues to present its successfully diverse array of concerts under the same roof: the Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Saturday night’s concert showcased an evening of new music presented by the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra, and judging by the varied ages in the audience, traditional settings remain as effective as ever.

San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra
San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra

The concert opened with a short piece by Italian composer Davide Verotta entitled Dances to Mytilini. Inspired by the folkloric traditions of the eastern Balkans and Turkey, this five dance cycle for violin, cello, flute and piano provided a taste of Eastern Europe. The use of traditional harmonies was subtly incorporated throughout with each short dance blending a variety of interesting effects. The first dance created an ethereal blend of static timbral sounds between instruments with a similar atmosphere created in the fourth dance by means of violin harmonics and piano string strumming. The more spirited elements of the work were found in the second dance, featuring clapping and instrumental tapping, and a typically rustic final dance to round off this delightful work.

With the audience suitably acclimated, the program turned in stark contrast to Edgard Varèse's Octandre for winds and double bass. Despite his complete surviving works lasting a total of only three hours, French composer Varèse is widely regarded as a major influence in 20th century music. Written in 1923, Octandre has a distinct Stravinsky influence which would be understandable given the increased popularity of the Rite of Spring during the 1920s. Tonight’s performance was performed to great effect, creating visceral, primal sounds with a powerful blending of timbre. Trumpeter Cindy Collins rose above the powerful homogenous sound throughout with spectacular clarity and sparkling tone. Music Director and Conductor Mark Alburger controlled the sound superbly, bringing out a variety of different colours whilst testing the limits of the acoustics.

Composer Allan Crossman was present to introduce his work Two Walks, concluding the first half of the concert. The composer provided a somewhat humorously unorthodox insight into the piece by singing every important melodic theme. As the title indicates, this work represented two contrasting walks one at Lake Merced and the other at Lake Merritt. The former, perhaps a much shorter walk, was placid and simple with an accompanying blanket of low sound underneath a higher ranged melodic line. The latter was a much more interesting account, often times joyful yet with an undercurrent of concern. The culmination of the work presented a low, rhythmically driving tutti which brought the work to a well-paced end.

The second half of the program was another intriguing eclectic mix of new music. Composer John Bilotta, also present, introduced his work entitled Thurber Country (2012) based on the “world” created by the popular American author and cartoonist James Thurber. Made up of five differing sections, the work was through composed with no breaks and no discernible movement changes, something that the composer apparently laughed about when working on structure with conductor Martha Stoddard. There were, however, a myriad of differing tempi, moods and emotions explored conveying the varying witticisms and comic insights of Thurber.

The program continued along the theme of diversity with the presentation of Lisa Scola Prosek’s Overture to L’Avventura (2012), an operatic tribute to the musical culture of Naples. A commission by Thick House, a San Francisco performing arts presenter, this overture gave us a flavor of a work with a proposed 2013 completion date. A multi talented artist, Ms. Scola Prosek featured not only as composer, but as pianist and vocalist alongside soprano Maria Mikheyenko. Perhaps the most traditional of works on the program, it exuded immense beauty through rich, tonal harmonies. There was an intriguing sense of underlying turmoil featuring throughout by means of descending chromatic sequences. There was no story provided for the entire opera, but this offering whetted my appetite for more. The chamber orchestra was somewhat overwhelming upon the entry of the soprano duet, but the overall sense of beauty was not lost.

The final piece on the program was something that caught my eye from the very beginning; Triple Concerto for Bassoon, Contrabassoon and Harp, Op. 201 (2012) written by Mark Alburger. It was rather charmingly described as a piece written for and dedicated to family members Michael, Lori and Samantha Garvey, all three of whom are musicians with the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra. The energetic Alburger explained that it was mapped on Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and piano but humorously added that unlike Beethoven, his work is more concise and “doesn’t riff.”

As soon as the concerto began, he wasted no time creating a sound world entrenched in a deep, dark bassoon texture from. Whilst given the form of a concerto, the work was by no means virtuosic for either instrument, but what it did demonstrate was a solid and skilled ability to maintain what can only be described as a diaphragm and lung workout. The low bassoon timbre was difficult to blend with the orchestra, but the second movement excelled. With plucked strings accompanying a lyrical contrabassoon solo, a wondrous and mystical atmosphere was created, coloured with added harp rolls. The final movement was a jaunty blues in which the orchestra let loose upon direction of the exceptional animated conducting of Alburger. It was an apt end to the concert, mirroring the entire program from start to finish; novel, intriguing, varied and exceptionally fun.