Last night in Old First Church, the Farallon Quintet gave its first concert in its capacity as Artists-in-Residence for the Old First Concerts (O1C) recital series. The group was formed to pursue the clarinet quintet repertoire; so the members are clarinetist Natalie Parker, violinists Solomiya Ivakhiv and Matthew Oshida, violist Jason Bonham, and cellist Jonah Kim. (For those who have followed Farallon over the last few years, Ivakhiv and Bonham are relatively new members.) They prepared a program that featured a world premiere by Durwynne Hsieh, which was the second piece he wrote for the group. Like the first, it was a sextet that added a piano to the mix; and the pianist for the occasion was Christine McLeavey Payne.
Hsieh described his sextet as “a brief anthology of musical short stories.” The prevailing rhetoric was one of playfulness. “The Bright Side” was based on the premise that the dark side of the moon gets too much attention (particularly among those who still remember Pink Floyd or the more recent Transformers film series). One could almost call it a compact evocation of a sunrise, were it not for the fact that the sun never sets on the bright side of the moon. More cryptic was the title of the second movement, “4 Minutes and 13 Seconds with C.M.;” and Hsieh was just as cryptic in the remarks he made before Farallon began its performance. “Jonah’s Day Out” was more explicit and provided Kim with energetic bursts of razzle-dazzle virtuosity. Indeed, Kim got so carried away with his solo work that Payne blew a police whistle while the other strings played siren-like glissando wails, making it clear that Kim was being stopped for speeding!
Thus, “The Bright Side” was not only the title of Hsieh’s first movement but also a testament to his rhetorical preferences. This was unabashedly “fun” music; and the performers clearly had no trouble buying into and reveling in Hsieh’s high spirits. This turned out to be the rhetorical stance for most of the evening, but Hsieh’s premiere emerged as the de facto standard-bearer for the occasion.
The second half of the program also took advantage of Payne’s presence, offering two additional sextets. The evening concluded with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 34, which he called “Overture on Hebrew Themes.” He composed it during his visit to New York in 1919, when he received a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian sextet on a world tour sponsored by the Russian Zionist Organization (hence, the name). They gave Prokofiev a notebook of Jewish folksongs, and he wove his own pastiche around them. Prokofiev’s own sense of Yiddishkeit was probably substantially less than modest; but he knew how to get the right klezmer sounds out of the clarinet, allowing the piano quintet to tag along for moral support. The piece is not performed often due to its unconventional instrumentation, but Farallon and Payne definitely knew how to rise to the occasion.
Prokofiev’s overture was preceded by a sextet by Aaron Copland, a composer whose personal sense of Judaism surfaced only rarely in his pieces. The sextet was actually a chamber rearrangement, made in 1937, of his “Short Symphony,” composed in 1932. This was a product of how Copland had learned to write American music in Paris while studying with Nadia Boulanger, and the original version received relatively little attention because performers found the rhythms too complex. Farallon and Payne clearly had no problems with what may once have been taken for complexity; and the music emerged as highly engaging, perhaps through the transparency that a smaller group could provide.
The only piece that Farallon played without Payne was the opening selection, Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 34 quintet in B-flat major. This is a far more light-hearted piece than the clarinet quintets that tend to get the most exposure, those by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 581 in A major) and Johannes Brahms (Opus 115 in B minor). Weber’s clarinet line demands agility at its most virtuosic, and Parker definitely had the chops to take on all of those demands. It also has a Menuetto movement with the tempo marking Capriccio presto. The music definitely has far more to do with uninhibited caprice than with the aristocratic minuet, and the whole ensemble knew just right way to capture the prevailing rhetoric. In other words Weber’s quintet provided an excellent “overture” for that “bright side” of Hsieh’s new composition.