It is the middle of the academic year at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and that means that it is time for the semiannual series of concerts of String and Piano Chamber Music that reflects the works the students have been preparing since the beginning of the term. Given how satisfied I was with the end-of-term events last April, I am hoping that my schedule can accommodate at least a representative sample of these concerts, if not the entire series; and, on the basis of repertoire alone, last night's event was an excellent way to begin. Most important was that my claim about a month ago that there was more to Amy Beach's Opus 67 piano quintet in F sharp minor that could be grasped by a single performance, particularly when that performance was a "first contact," was put to the test; but equally interesting was the company provided for Beach's attention-deserving chamber music. While last month the quintet was approached from a pianist's perspective (which, admittedly, was also my own perspective of her music) "as a gradus ad Parnassum … by way of Domenico Scarlatti, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Liszt," last night's performance gave the work more of a chamber music perspective, following it with La Bonne Chanson, the Opus 61 of Gabriel Fauré; and after the intermission the gradus took off in another direction, so to speak, with Alberto Ginastera's second (Opus 26) string quartet.
There is a lot to be said for beginning a program with an unfamiliar work. Not only is the mind likely to be in its most alert disposition; but also it is at its most "context free," which means that it is more likely to hear connections based on its own experiences, as opposed to those induced by how the program has been ordered. I particularly appreciated this opportunity, since I had written last month that, while Liszt may have been an influence for Beach's piano music (such as the Sketches, where were really the only pieces I could claim to know at any level deeper than the superficial), I could not hear him as an influence on the piano quintet. For one thing, as I observed after my first exposure, this was very much "a work for five 'equals,' as opposed to the frequent domination of the piano (evident in anything Liszt wrote for piano and orchestra) resulting in a 'concerto for piano and very small orchestra.'" Thus, in last night's setting I found myself thinking about Beach's work more from the context of Fauré, not through anticipation of La Bonne Chanson but from my familiarity with his early chamber music, such as the first (Opus 13) violin sonata and the first (Opus 15) piano quartet. In both of these works there is an element of urgency in the allegro passages, which serves to provide more by way of forward momentum than the sort of platform for virtuosity one often encounters in Liszt. I was most aware of this momentum when, upon arrival at the Adagio come prima in the final (third) movement, Beach revealed the cyclic nature of her architecture, through which, as Thomas Stearns Eliot put it, we "arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." (Ironically, Eliot did not begin work on "Little Gidding" until about 35 years after Beach had completed this piano quintet in 1907!) Now that I am more familiar with this piano quintet, I am all the more eager to hear it more often and "know its place."
La Bonne Chanson may not exhibit that element of urgency that I could hear in Beach; but it is very much a work for "equals." The composition is a song cycle of poems by Paul Verlaine scored for mezzo-soprano and piano quintet; but Fauré was very selective in how he scored each poem (although not quite as selective as Arnold Schoenberg was in scoring his Pierrot Lunaire cycle). The title is Verlaine's, and the imagery of his texts suggests that his approach to the "goodness" of that title is one of irony, if not sarcastic vulgarity. This is thus the same spirit that would later be found in the Paul Éluard poems that Francis Poulenc set in La Figure Humaine, but without the context of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Fauré's settings, however, are anything but vulgar: His phrasing of the texts is as attentive as those found in any of his songs for voice and piano, but he has added the transparency of the piano quintet to enhance the accompaniment. This turned out to be my first exposure to this side of Fauré's vocal writing; and, as was the case with Beach's chamber music, I just hope that I do not have as long a wait before having another opportunity.
In approaching Ginastera's second string quartet, I found Deborah Schwartz-Kates' analysis of his stylistic periods for Grove Music Online a useful frame of reference:
Traditional studies have divided Ginastera's output into three stylistic periods: firstly ‘objective nationalism’ (1934–47), in which he referred directly to Argentine folk materials with traditional tonal means, secondly ‘subjective nationalism’ (1947–57), in which he integrated sublimated symbols in forging an original Argentine style, and thirdly ‘neo-Expressionism’ (1958–83), in which he combined magic surrealism with dodecaphony and avant-garde procedures.
Since the quartet was published in 1958, this puts it on the cusp between the second and third periods; but there is nothing "neo-Expressionist" about it. Indeed, while I have been unable to find any explicit support in the published literature, I would argue that Ginastera may have found his path to "subjective nationalism" through the subjectivity of another nationalist composer, Béla Bartók. If the ear needs a frame for reference for listening to this quartet, I can think of no better place to begin than with Bartók's fifth quartet (number 102 in András Szöllősy's chronological Sz. numbers), with which it shares both the five-movement architecture and Bartók's disposition for the use of inversion in the development of his melodic material. This is not to say that Ginastera was appropriating Bartók. This quartet not only has a unique voice of its own but also a rhythmic physicality that is more Argentine than Hungarian. However, that Grove entry indicates that Ginastera published an article entitled "Homage to Béla Bartók" in 1981; so it would not surprise me that he had already felt the need for such an homage over twenty years earlier and expressed that need through music rather than text.
My overall experience, then, was exposure to three new works (with only a vague familiarity with the first of them), all of which left me with a hunger for further experience. For my money (under the disclaimer that this was a free concert), that is what the performance of music is supposed to do. Once again the Conservatory has demonstrated that it can fulfill the public service role of educating audiences while educating its students!