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In a Mixed-Bag Program, Sarah Cahill Mostly Shines

May 31, 2016

San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music

Few pianists have the ability to create enjoyable concert experiences out of tiresome pieces like Percy Grainger’s The Immovable Do. Luckily, Sarah Cahill is one of them: playing briskly, with unaffected yet expressive phrasing, she transformed the piece into a surprisingly winsome opening to May 27’s program of mostly 20th-century music at the Presidio Officers’ Club — Cahill’s last Bay Area concert of the season, as well as the last Presidio Sessions concert until September.

At its core, The Immovable Do is a perfunctory four-part chorale, stylistically reminiscent of the First New English School (though, unlike many of Grainger’s other works, it isn’t based on pre-existing material). The shtick is the high C that is sustained throughout the work: the title is a play on the “fixed do” system of solfège, in which do is C, regardless of key. In the piano version of The Immovable Do — a piece that, like many of Grainger’s works, exists in more arrangements than its music merits — a second player hits the stalwart octave Cs on the strong beats of each measure. In spite of these blows, however, Cahill created a fluid and nuanced performance that presented as strong a case as anyone could make for Grainger’s piece.

In the virtuosic genre, Marc Blitzstein’s Scherzo (Bourgeois at Play) — a bright, cubist work from 1930 — outshone Ann Southam’s Glass Houses No. 7, a minimalist perpetual motion that, for its length, could use a few more ideas.

The program’s biggest surprise was Three Rags (1969) by James Tenney, a composer whose characteristic works are often described in erudite-sounding terms like “stochastic music” and “information theory.” These movements, however, are honest-to-goodness rags. The first, “Raggedy Ann,” is particularly charming, with wistful circle progressions growing into swaggering, grandiose melodies. Unfortunately, page-turning mishaps contributed to the heavy-handed characterization of the second and third rags, whose rubato seemed more accidental than related to any musical sensibility. A certain leadenness also plagued Bunita Marcus’s Julia — a gorgeously delicate composition after the Beatles song — later in the program.

Cahill’s performance of Terry Riley’s “Fandango on the Heaven Ladder” (from Book 7 of The Heaven Ladder, written in 1994) was both polished and exciting, but more interesting from a compositional point of view was the new work by Samuel Carl Adams, commissioned by Cahill in honor of Riley’s 80th birthday. Shade Studies (2015) uses what Cahill described as “a little bit of electronics” — an iPad equipped with a free sampling app — to sustain and enhance certain pitches from the piano’s soft, sleepy chords. The resulting electro-acoustic combination is subtly intriguing.

Barely audible at first, the drones move toward the foreground as the piece unfolds, sliding kaleidoscopically in and out of tune with the piano’s equal-tempered pitches. Due to the noise bleeding from the neighboring restaurant, it was sometimes difficult to appreciate the full spectrum of Adams’s pitch shading — but even so, the piece made a strong impression.

The other standout was a pairing of pieces by Ruth Crawford (Seeger): Nos. 4 and 6 from the collection Nine Preludes, written between 1924 and 1928. In Prelude No. 4, dissonant chords affect familiar downward gestures of resolution — but the expected consonances never arrive. The music somehow evokes both Wagner and Schoenberg, in his free atonal period, yet the murky harmonies are truly Crawford’s own. (Her masterful String Quartet has been recognized by some musicologists as a hallmark early example of sound-mass composition. It’s a shame she stopped composing when she did).

Prelude No. 6, on the other hand, suspends glassy chords above dense, intensely chromatic lines. Played by Cahill with utmost dynamic control — no small feat, in a three-staved system of independent lines — this work was, by itself, worth the trip into the Presidio.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.

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