Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) continued its Chamber Series with the SFP debut of the Dover Quartet, consisting of violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. However, they appeared as a quintet in the company of composer and bassist Edgar Meyer, already familiar to many in the audience as this was his ninth appearance as an SFP artist (not counting the three times he performed in the Family Matinee Series). Regular readers know that Dover just made its recording debut on Cedille Records with the album Tribute, conceived to honor the members of the Guarneri Quartet, who had served as both teachers and coaches. The report of that album suggested that the recording failure to capture the spontaneous intimacy of “making” (rather than just playing) music, which is particularly vital to the presentation of quartets from the Classical period.
It is therefore a delight to report that last night’s performance could not have been more intimate, replete with the freshness of spontaneity that breathes life into the music of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose K. 136 divertimento in D major was selected to introduce the group to the audience. (It should be noted, as an aside, that Dover is not the first quartet to have been undermined by a Cedille production. At least one other quartet has suffered at the hands of their technicians, who may be more interested in delivering content to earbuds connected to iTunes than in appealing to serious listeners.) Furthermore, Meyer’s presence fit into that intimate gathering like a hand into a perfectly tailored glove. Even in K. 136, where the bass does little more than double the cello part an octave lower, once could sense the sort of camaraderie that Mozart himself experienced when he brought his viola to play with Joseph Haydn (on second violin), along with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello.
Mozart composed K. 136 as the first of a set of three divertimenti early in 1772 just after his sixteenth birthday, and it is unclear that they were written with any particular purpose in mind. They tend to be performed as ensemble pieces but hold up just as well when played one-to-a-part. Indeed, in that latter case there is much more of a sense of a conversation among equals, as opposed to a group following a leader (probably sitting in the concertmaster’s chair). It was that sense of spirited conversation that made Dover’s partnership with Meyer such a delightful introduction to the evening. It was as if, over the course of less than a quarter of an hour, one became acquainted with all five performers on stage as personalities, rather than as “executors” of a collection of score pages. By the time the quarter-hour had concluded, the attentive listener was eager to learn more about these new acquaintances.
In that respect the personal qualities of the entire group were best developed at the very end of the program, when they played Meyer’s “quintet for double bass and string quartet,” as the composer himself described it. He wrote this piece in 1995, playing the premiere with the Emerson String Quartet. The four movements are identified only by number; and the overall structure involves a journey through a diversity of episodes, rather than following traditional Classical conventions. Nevertheless, the second movement can easily be taken as a scherzo, which is followed by a more introspective slow movement, leaving the outer movements to “roll their own” approaches to structure.
From a rhetorical point of view, the attentive listener is likely to pick up very quickly on Meyer’s own take on the use of repetitive structures. This is a concept most frequently associated with Philip Glass; but Meyer’s approach tends more in the direction of the sorts of riffs one encounters in blues, jazz, and some of the more interesting rock music. However, while riffs tend to provide a spinal cord for the more popular genres, Meyer weaves elaborate textures by superposing multiple riffs, moving him closer to Steve Reich than to Glass but with his own highly individualized approaches to rhetoric. Meyer has reduced his own thoughts about the piece to six sentences of bare-bones (and somewhat self-mocking) description. These were included in last night’s program book along with his concern that too many words of description would distract from the music itself. Last night that music definitely spoke for itself in a clear and expressively nuanced voice, leaving the attentive listener far too engaged to worry about what might or might not have been written about the piece.
Meyer also shared the stage with Shaw to perform a duo in D major by Gioacchino Rossini. It was written for the London banker Sir David Salomons, who was an amateur cellist. It provided Salomons with an opportunity to play with Domenico Dragonetti, the bass virtuoso of his day. Rossini was given fifty pounds for his efforts. On the basis of what was written, Salomons may have been an amateur; but he must have been a talented one. There is no end of virtuosic writing across this duo’s three movements, much of which involves give-and-take exchanges between the two instruments, often bringing a knowing smile, if not an outright belly laugh, to the attentive listener.
The duo itself was probably written in 1824, but it is worth noting that Rossini was no stranger to the bass. Among his earliest compositions are the six sonatas in four parts, composed around 1804 and scored for two violins, cello, and bass. The sonatas offer up a generous share of lively material written for the bass; and, in many ways, the duo provided Rossini with the opportunity to revisit some of the witty passages that emerged from this youthful endeavor. From that point of view, last night’s performance by a youthful cellist with a “seasoned” bassist offered a delightful perspective of how the mature Rossini could draw upon ideas reaching back to his youth and endow them with new freshness.
Dover performed only one work on their own, solely as a string quartet. This was Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major, one of the great “standards” in the repertoire. Their account captured all of the freshness that reflected the composer’s impressions of the “wide open spaces” he encountered while visiting the United States. The music was probably familiar to many in the audience, but Dover knew how to put its own stamp of freshness on it. Much of that freshness came from the intimacy exchanges of the respective personalities of the players. This is a string quartet in which each instrument brings its own voice to the table, so to speak; and, when those voices engage with each other, the results are spirited, to say the least. Last night was a performance in which each of the Dover players found the right way to match his/her personal voice with the voice that Dvořák had composed. Thus, even for those who know this music well from both concert and recording experiences, this was a performance with its own stamp of uniqueness made possible through the self-confidence of the four performers.