Friday, November 11, 2016

The Weilersteins Bring Compellingly Broad Strokes to their SFCM Residency Concert

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, husband-and-wife couple Donald Weilerstein (violin) and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein (piano) completed their week’s residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) with their Artist Residency Concert. The first half of the program consisted of two duos, both written by American composers during the first quarter of the twentieth century. For the second half they were joined by alumna Pei-Ling Lin (’12) on viola and current student Evan Kahn (’18) on cello for a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 87 (second) piano quartet in E-flat major, composed in 1889.

The American portion was performed in reverse chronological order, beginning with Henry Cowell’s 1925 suite for violin and piano, followed by Charles Ives’ first sonata for violin and piano, written between 1903 and 1908. Cowell not only championed Ives’ work but also, with his wife Sidney Robertson Cowell, wrote the first full book on Ives’ life and music. Cowell was an early (if not the first) champion of the tone cluster, requiring the pianist to play a wide span of adjacent keys, usually with the forearm; and such a tone cluster makes for the opening gesture of his suite. On a broader duration the suite tends to balance the opposition between wild eccentric rhythms coming from the keyboard behind more straightforward melodic lines on the violin, almost in the manner of a devout incantation. The baroque suite may have inspired Cowell’s overall structure; but his approach to rhythm resulted in a series of highly challenging dance forms (if the dance function of the baroque suite was what Cowell had in mind in the first place). The sheer audacity of the result could not have provided a better rhetorical tool for seizing the audience’s attention.

For the Ives selection Vivian began with some remarks to introduce several of the familiar tunes that Ives had appropriated. This was probably a good idea, since what was familiar to Ives is probably now beyond the listening scope of most SFCM students (rather in the way that just about all of us are no longer familiar with most of the hymns that Johann Sebastian Bach appropriated in his sacred music). Both Weilersteins played a few excerpts not only to introduce the tunes but also to demonstrate some of Ives’ compositional devices. My personal opinion has been for some time that the only way to get to know Ives’ sources is to sing them, preferably with a richly vigorous voice. The Weilersteins came off a little too polite for such practices; but they still brought significant clarity to the thickly brash textures of the sonata, reminding at least a few of us of how few opportunities there are to listen to good performances of Ives’ music these days.

Vigor was also the prevailing rhetoric in the Dvořák piano quartet. This was music that reminded the listener of how overt this composer could be in expressing his passions. Yet there was always a clear understanding of how he could get the best from his resources. Through last night’s performance one could also appreciate Dvořák’s indebtedness to Johannes Brahms, who enjoyed the piano quartet genre so much that he wrote three of them. Indeed, Brahms’ preference for giving pride of place to the cello in his slow movements rose again in the Lento of Opus 87, duly executed with the requisite comforting warmth by Kahn. However, the most decidedly Czech aspect of Dvořák’s own approach came in the third movement with his decision to replace the more traditional scherzo with a closer-to-home dumka. By the time this quartet dashed into the coda of its final movement, it was clear that the intensity of energy during the second half of this recital had been as highly-charged as it had been among the brash Americans of the first half.

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