The Salons concerts that San Francisco Performances (SFP) brings to the Hotel Rex on a roughly monthly basis were conceived to be both casual and intimate. They allow attendees to get closer to the performers by virtue of not only a smaller space but also an informal Q&A session with the audience at the conclusion of the event, which usually lasts a bit more than one hour. Every now and then, however, programming comes up with an offering that reflects back on earlier traditions of salon life, particularly in the more decadent metropolitan cultures of Europe.
Last night SFP hosted the Village Road Trio at the Rex, and the program for the evening offered a delightful spirit of nostalgia for that sort of salon life that was in its last stages in Europe about a century ago, combined with approaches to music-making that were decidedly part of the immediate present. The trio brings together musicians of distinctly different backgrounds and talents, concert violinist and composer Alisa Rose, Rob Reich, also a composer, playing a bit of piano and a lot of accordion, and Daniel Fabricant, equally at home with both jazz and the classical repertoire, on bass. The program represented the full breadth of their eclectic interests, including three originals by Reich, two by Rose, an uncanny arrangement of Frédéric Chopin for violin and accordion, and several ventures into twentieth-century modernism.
Most importantly, however, this was music-making that was never strictly shackled by the “charts” of music notation. Even the Chopin selection, the second of the Opus 70 waltzes, which begins in F minor and migrates into A-flat major, was approached with a technique that allowed for spontaneous improvisation from both Rose and Reich. This pushed the sense of nostalgia back almost two centuries, rather than just one, suggesting the sort of immediacy that Chopin himself probably engaged when playing in the setting of a Paris salon. Both musicians had the courage to play with the music, rather than just play it; and they had the chops to bring compelling artfulness to their sense of play.
Such immediacy can also have its wild side. This was clearly evident in the violin-accordion-bass arrangements of the two selections by Béla Bartók, the set of six Romanian folk dances and the first movement of that composer’s first rhapsody, composed for accompanied violin. These interpretations reflected the uninhibited rhetorics of the source material that Bartók had collected with his colleague Zoltán Kodály. However, even wilder was the concluding account of Pablo de Sarasate’s Opus 20 “Zigeunerwiesen” (gypsy airs). Sarasate clearly wrote this for his own exhibitionistic virtuosity on the violin, but it quickly migrated to become an encore selection by almost every other violinist seeking to dazzle his/her audience. No doubt Fritz Kreisler knew how to milk every ounce of gemütlichkeit out of Sarasate’s score pages, and his spontaneity was probably enhanced by his tendency to down several beers and a bottle of wine along with a full-course dinner prior to heading off to the concert hall. The Village Road players were clearly less inebriated last night, but they were not afraid to be impetuous in the sense of play they brought to their own unique approach to Sarasate.
The original works on the program may not have been quite as wild, but they were still delightfully imaginative. Rose’s “Texas Spaghetti” (composed during a long wait at the Austin airport) was a frolicking hodgepodge of eclecticism, while her “Slidey Waltz” served up a generous portion of portamento with sly affection. Reich’s pieces were a bit more on the lyric side, but his imaginative piano work summoned up memories of a similar rhetoric of quiet lyricism that one used to find in the improvisations of Bill Evans. The innovative qualities of all of these pieces made it clear that there is still room for a salon spirit in contemporary practices.