It's hard enough in this day and age to keep a small arts presenter afloat. When that arts presenter has been bringing brand-new chamber music to the public for 25 years, it's cause for celebration. You've got a chance to do just that, and hear some ear-opening music, when Earplay opens their 25th season with Ear and There on Monday February 8 at 7:30pm at the Herbst Theater.
A century and a half ago, a performance of Brahms' new Trio (for example) was an event, treated like the release of a new Springsteen album. People would rush to buy tickets, debate the performance in the press and in the coffee houses, and write column after column in the music press. Even fifty years later, Schoenberg's latest would provoke a similar feeding frenzy, although the reaction was more likely to be one of controlled outrage rather than anticipation. Today? New music in general has a reputation of being "difficult," new chamber music in particular, so premieres come and go with nary a ripple. The reasons are legion: composers are marginalized, audiences don't speak the language, chamber music requires more intense listener participation -- all, to a certain degree, true. But 25 years ago, a group of Bay Area composers and performers got together to try and alter those perceptions.
The audience for new chamber music is intensely passionate but very small, so in order to survive, as Mazeppa the stripper sang in Gypsy, "Ya gotta have a gimmick." And Earplay came up with a good one: commissioning works from composers with ties to the Bay Area, that connect the different cultural threads that make this area what it is. Two and a half decades later, their anniversary season shows how successful they've been at capturing that diversity, with four world premieres, six commissioned works and eight composers who have lived or worked in the Bay Area. So, in addition to the excitement of hearing new music before anybody else, you already know it will speak to you directly in some way -- it may even reflect your heritage, or your neighborhood.
All the music is put in some kind of context, whether contrasted with music that still sounds "new" even though it's almost a century old (like Schoenberg's "String Trio" later in the season), or set against other new works from other new worlds (hence Ear and There). The anniversary season's first concert includes a present and former faculty at SF State, a graduate and a former professor at Cal, a teacher at UC Davis (all from "'ere") and the internationally renowned Kaija Saariaho (from "there"), and ranges from Saariaho's very sensuous soundscapes to a piece that's bound to set off some chuckles, starting with the title: "And of Course, Henry the Horse" by Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez.
I've often wondered whether the reason why so many recordings of difficult contemporary works get Grammy Awards is that the voters are amazed the players can actually make it through the scores intact. But that's the beauty of commissioning your own music and playing the premieres: you get to help define what the work sounds like, adding to the allure for both performers and audience. And all the Earplayers are seasoned vets of other Bay Area ensembles (like the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the SF Ballet and Opera Orchestras, and the SF and Berkeley Contemporary Players) as well.
Later on in the season, you can go from the Outside In on March 22, with two premieres, including Lori Dobbins' "Through the Golden Gate," and then Ports and Portals on May 24 features a commission from Korean composer Hyo-Shin Na, a work that bridges California Native American, East Asian and Western cultures called "Song of One Lost in the Fog." Sounds like the attitude a lot of people might have about contemporary chamber music; Earplay might just change your mind. They've been doing it for 25 years.
Earplay presents Ear and There at 7:30pm, Monday, February 8, 2010 at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit earplay.org.