Night walks, sleep stories and dreams are the themes around which Left Coast Chamber Ensemble’s “Starry Night” performance will spin a musical mosaic June 4 at the intimate Piedmont Center for the Arts.
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The venue’s fine-tuned acoustics are arguably the ideal setting for amplifying the diverse features of each piece while still allowing the four composers to “be in conversation” with each other. This, despite one composer, Arnold Schoenberg, having died in 1951 and the others, three living composers, unlikely ever to have met in person.
In addition to Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), the program includes Nina Shekhar’s “Bedtime Stories,” Martin Rokeach’s “Sleepless Night,” and the world premiere of “Night of the South Winds,” a flute concerto by Josiah Catalan. Featured performers are Stacey Pelinka (flute), Allegra Chapman (piano), Michael Goldberg (guitar), Anna Presler and Liana Berube (violin), Phyllis Kamrin and Matilda Hofman (viola) and Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong (cello). Hofman will conduct the new work by Catalan. The program repeats June 5 at S.F. Conservatory of Music in San Francisco.
A short, free preview presentation June 2 at the PAC will have the flute concerto’s six musicians performing the work and joined by Catalan in a Q&A with the audience. Catalan, in a phone interview, provided a preview, describing the concerto’s origins, unusual evolution, notable features, compositional challenges, Pelinka’s strengths as a flutist and the anticipatory energy as rehearsals with the musicians begin.
“The initial spark was a commission to write a work for a larger ensemble,” he said. “It was supposed to be for 2020, but due to the pandemic and other logistics, we postponed it. Picking up the trail later, I wanted to write a solo piece and (Artistic Director) Anna Presler brought up Stacey. I’ve written for her before and she’s a stellar flutist and fantastic at playing lots of different types of repertoire, from Baroque to classical to contemporary. I knew the sky was the limit with Stacey.”
Catalan, born in New York City and raised in San Francisco, is currently a lecturer at Sacramento State, where he studied violin under Presler, and holds a Ph.D. in composition and music theory from UC Davis, where he also teaches. A trip he recently took to his ancestral homeland in the Southern Philippines with Bay Area-based Kularts had a vast influence on the direction he pursued. Kularts was founded in 1985 and is dedicated to presenting contemporary and tribal Filipino arts in the United States as well as to supporting Filipino-America artists whose work is grounded in indigenous Filipino traditions and comments on contemporary culture and ideas.
“Throughout that trip with Kularts, I saw Filipino tribes and learned more about their music, experienced it live. I saw different types of lutes that are plucked and heard different flutes played, which made me think about instrumentation. And being exposed to the traditional indigenous music, the percussive element stayed with me. I wanted to extract those musical facets and incorporate them in the piece.”
In consultation with Presler, Catalan chose an unusual configuration for a chamber ensemble’s instrumentation. Instead of two violins, as is common with a typical string ensemble, a cello was added to provide a second low, resonant voice. Catalan also uses it to provide contrast to the other cello. In one section the cellist does not bow traditionally, but strikes the strings to create a grounded, repeating pattern that counters the other cello’s lyrical line. “Throwing in” the classical guitar, he said, introduces tones similar to the lutes he heard in the Philippines.
Fusing indigenous pitches, rhythms and playing style with Western classical music principles and traditions he cherishes and is trained to perform required a month of grappling.
“I eventually allowed the piece to follow a South Winds-style progression,” Catalan said. “The music has the ancestry slowly unfolding, with the percussive elements coming later and long, lyrical flute lines that sing as did the musicians I saw in the Philippines. Later, the work engages in indigenous kulintag music that is driving, playful, freeing.”
Presler, in a separate interview, spoke after just opening Catalan’s score the previous day to play through her violin parts.
“The cadenzas between different instruments look like fun and there’s one with the flute that looks free enough I’ll enjoy playing it with Stace,” she said. “Other parts seem to be rhythms he found when studying Filipino music. They’re repeating rhythms and he wrote they’re to be played ‘slightly swung.’ I’m not sure what that means. I played them straight and then played what I imagine he means by ‘swung,’ and they sound fascinating either way.”
Presler said Catalan as a student was “unafraid about everything” and his character as a composer is exactly the same. Similarly, Pelinka is remarkably open-minded and adventurous, according to Presler.
“She’s willing to try everything, like one piece that involved heavy breathing into the flute,” Presler said. “Normally, all the focus of a flutist is on the pitch, the singing sound. Stacey gets more colors to come out: the vibrato and the straight sounds are wider, so there’s more variety. It’s lyrical, but there’s also brilliant, strong playing.”
A reward for Catalan as he composed the piece was anticipating Pelinka’s skillful technique and writing to utilize the flute’s wide range. “A flute can soar above other instruments in its higher register, or blend in the lower range. Extended techniques like speaking and allowing the voice to echo in the flute chamber while playing a note, or making percussive sounds, or creating multi-phonic sounds in timbres from pure to airy —the flute is great to write for,” Catalan said.
Presler has attended concerts at the PAC, but Starry Nights marks her first appearance as a performer.
“I love playing in small venues and being able to feel the audience,” she said. “Sometimes, you get a sense they’re reaching out to you, really listening. Piedmont has acoustics that aren’t too dry or too cold and it’s easy to interact with the audience afterwards. Another joy beyond performing these contemporary works by living composers is the pleasure of getting to know them as people.”
For Catalan, who comes full circle to find one of his instructors performing his work, it’s now all about wondering what discoveries will be made in rehearsals. Eager to engage with the audience and share his ancestral story and music, he chose only one word to describe his condition: excited.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.