Friday, November 4, 2016

Geoff Nuttall Engagingly Sandwiches Haydn between Two Slices of Mozart at SFCM

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), violinist Geoff Nuttall gave his Artist Residency Concert, concluding his visit to SFCM this week. Ever since his first visit almost exactly three years ago, Nuttall has been a welcome guest, at least from the audience perspective. He exudes positive energy in his work with the students. They pick up on it and magnify that energy as it spills off the stage into the audience area.

From a repertoire point of view, Nuttall clearly has a strong attachment to the “First Viennese School;” and last night’s program consisted entirely of music by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A violin sonata and a string quintet by Mozart provided the two metaphorical slices of bread between which a Haydn string quartet was sandwiched. While Nuttall was the sonata soloist and led the Haydn quartet, it was always clear throughout the evening that the students were his highest priority.

The Haydn quartet was Hoboken III/31 in E-flat major, the first of the six quartets published as Opus 20 and usually known as the “Sun” quartets. At past visits Nuttall has extolled this collection for its abundant signs of Haydn’s more adventurous qualities. Three of the quartets end with fugues on two, three, and four subjects, respectively; but Hoboken III/31 is not one of them. Rather, it is the quartet that opens the published version with a decidedly sunny disposition in which the players can be appreciated for both their individual voices and the rich textures that arise when those voices mingle. The students in the quartet Nuttall led were second violinist Yuqian Zhang, violist Luis Bellorin, and cellist Evan Kahn. One could see in their faces that they were still discovering the many delights that Haydn had worked into his score, and the ensemble work that Nuttall coordinated facilitated audience sharing in that discovery process.

Bellorin then returned with his Thalea String Quartet colleagues (violinists Christopher Whitley and Kumiko Sakamoto and cellist Bridget Pasker) for the concluding performance of Mozart’s K. 516 quintet in G minor. In this case Nuttall took the second viola part. Those familiar with past Thalea performances know that Whitley and Sakamoto like to sit facing each other; and that “reflection” was duplicated with Nuttall beside Sakamoto facing Bellorin beside Whitley. Pasker then occupied the “keystone” position of what was basically an arch layout.

This suited the organization of the score very well. The quintet setting allowed Mozart the luxury of working with smaller groups in both high and low registers. In last night’s seating the level of the register translated into depth into the stage area. This allowed for some clear spatial clues into Mozart’s strategies for organizing his five instrumental voices. From a performance point of view, Nuttall blended right in with the Thalea players; but one could see from his body language and facial expressions that he was contributing his own thoughts about Mozart to how K. 516 was actually executed.

The opening selection was Mozart’s K. 454 violin sonata in B-flat major. This may have provided Nuttall with more of a “soloist’s pedestal;” but we must not forget that Mozart’s primary instrument was the piano. As a result, the piano part was far more than mere accompaniment; and Syon Kim put as much energy into that part as Nuttall endowed upon the violin part. The resulting give-and-take was thoroughly engaging, “warming up” the audience for the richer ensemble textures that would follow and would provide an excellent representation of Nuttall as both coach and team player.

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