Wednesday, November 30, 2016

End-of-Term Chamber Music Thrives at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

The end of each term at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) always provides a wide variety of public recital opportunities. This is when the efforts of the past several months have culminated in an opportunity to present the result to an audience. This may make for an ideal friends-and-family occasion; but the real test comes with the performers confronting perfect strangers.

The two most reliable ways to learn about these concerts are to check out the bulletin-board-style array of programs posted on the wall immediately to the right of the entrance to the SFCM building or to check out the Events Calendar Web page on the SFCM Web site. However, with the rise of social software, many students are engaging in their first exercises in self-promotion, testing the potential for audience-building through social networks. As a result, I became aware of last night’s Graduate Chamber Music Recital by pianist Xin Zhao through her posting the event on Facebook. More specifically, I decided to attend the recital because Friends (capitals for the technical term) in my own social network had posted their own plans to be there. As a result, Zhao had to contend with at least one of those “perfect strangers” in the audience.

The program consisted of a straightforward coupling of a piano sonata with a piano trio, the two separated by an intermission. This made for a relatively short evening, but it was hardly short on content. The sonata was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) in F minor; and the trio was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 49 in D minor. Both of these imposed major demands on the pianist, and it was interesting to track the progress of Zhao and her colleagues in rising to those demands.

The trio was, of course, the major chamber music event, since it involved the interplay of the performers beyond their individual technical capabilities. Zhao’s fellow performers for Opus 49 were violinist Shelby Yamin and cellist Saul Richmond-Rakerd. It is unclear whether this was their first effort in playing together as a group, but they definitely exhibited signs of a new ensemble in the making.

Those who know Opus 49 are well aware of the abundance of keyboard virtuosity that Mendelssohn put into his score. However, Zhao approached her part in terms of a conversation among equals. Her dynamics were always excellently matched to the levels of the violin and cello, meaning that no voice ever had to struggle to be heard. Nevertheless, she brought a calm energy to the act of jumping through each of the hoops that Mendelssohn had presented her. The result was a highly pleasing account of a score whose rhetoric is basically affable, regardless of any of the darker connotations of the key of D minor.

On the other hand “affable” is hardly an appropriate adjective for Beethoven’s Opus 57. Indeed, this music is, for all intents and purposes, notorious for the level of technical demands that it imposes. Since every pianist is determined to confront those demands, the piece gets so much exposure that is has built up audience expectations that involve jumping through those hoops and little else. This is the sort of piece that shows up regularly on competition programs, and it often seems as if it has provided competition judges with an ideal checklist against which competitors’ performances may be compared.

Of course the music is not all about the checklist. The music, itself, emerges through the ability of the soloist to bring a personal expressive stamp to all those marks Beethoven first committed to paper. Nevertheless, there are disconcertingly too many concert recitals at which pianists, even if they progressed beyond competitions years ago, are still playing to those judges, so to speak. Finding that music in Opus 57 is no easy matter; and I can probably count the number of personally satisfying concert experiences on one hand (and will not name any names).

From that point of view, last night’s performance came off, for the most part, as one for the Ghost of Competitions Yet to Come. Zhao’s technical understanding of Opus 57 is definitely impressive, even if not all of her ducks are quite in a row yet. However, that sense of the-music-itself never quite registered; and that shortcoming is not the sort of concept that can be explained by opening the score and pointing out specific passages. One might say that this was a performance in which the flesh was up to the task, but the spirit had yet to establish itself.

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