Monday, January 30, 2017

San Francisco Symphony Musicians Gather for Early and Late Chamber Music

Yesterday afternoon about a dozen of the members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gathered in smaller groups on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall for the latest installment in the SFS Chamber Music Series. Two of the composers on the program, Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler, were represented by relatively early efforts, while the remaining composer, Robert Schumann, was represented by a late work. This made for a repertoire guaranteed to pique the curiosity of the devoted listener.

The second half of the program was occupied entirely by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 20 septet. This was scored to balance a string trio (Yun Chu on violin, Nanci Severance on viola, and Sébastien Gringras on cello) against a wind trio of clarinet (Luis Baez), horn (Bruce Roberts), and bassoon (Rob Weir), all erected over a bass line played by Scott Pingel. Beethoven composed this piece in 1799 and it was first performed at a fundraising concert (for his own benefit) on April 2, 1800. The program for the concert also included the Opus 21 (first) symphony in C major. However, it was not an all-Beethoven affair, since a symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and excerpts from Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation were also performed.

In some ways Opus 20 can be taken as a reflection on the sorts of divertimentos that Mozart and Haydn had composed for different combinations of instruments and with different numbers of movements. Nevertheless, those divertimentos were, for the most part, composed to serve as “background music” for social occasions, rather than as centers of attention in a concert setting. For that latter purpose Beethoven clearly sought symmetry not only in his instrumentation but in the balance of his six movements. In the center are two pairs of a slow movement followed by a dance: a Tempo di Menuetto preceded by an Adagio cantabile in the first case and a set of variations on an Andante theme followed by a Scherzo in the second. These are framed by two “sonata form” movements, each with a slow introduction.

Symmetry, however, is complemented by a truly prodigious variety in the approaches that Beethoven takes to combining his instruments. A scrupulous score-follower might be able to make the case that he accounted for all combinations of instruments of all possible sizes; but what is far more important is how the sonorous textures of those combinations seem to change as seamlessly as Beethoven’s harmonic progressions. One has to believe that Beethoven wrote this piece not only for the benefit and pleasure of those who would play it but also to make the case that, in this new century that had just begun, an audience of attentive listeners was as important as a stage filled with skilled performers.

In other words, in its own modest way, Opus 20 constituted a tectonic shift in what was expected from those for whom the music was being played. One got some impression of that shift in yesterday afternoon’s performance. On the one hand the seven musicians were clearly enjoying each other’s company as the patterns of their interactions maintained an ongoing flux. This could easily be taken as “private music” for a gathering of friends whose skills were more diverse than usual. Nevertheless, the group also seemed well aware that this was music that was making the transition from private to public; so one could sense that engaging with the audience was as important as engagement within the ensemble. The results were delightfully effective, if not a bit surprising for having taken place in Davies’ oversized setting.

If Beethoven’s career was still in its early stages at the time of Opus 20, Mahler was still a student at the Vienna Conservatory when his 1876 piano quartet in A minor was composed. This single-movement piece was performed just before the intermission. SFS string players Kelly Leon-Pearce (violin), David Kim (viola), and Barbara Bogatin (cello) were joined by Marc Shapiro at the piano. This was probably intended as the first movement of a longer composition that was never completed. Indeed, this is Mahler’s only piece of instrumental chamber music; and, while it is clear that there is an intense richness in its expressiveness (possibly reflecting on Robert Schumann and Joannes Brahms), there are no hints of either the logic or the rhetoric that would emerge when Mahler began to apply himself to composing with more focused intensity.

From today’s perspective, this composition amounts to a wistful reflection on a time that is about to pass into oblivion. A similar spirit can be found in the string quartet that Arnold Schoenberg composed before his “first” quartet. Yesterday afternoon’s performers were clearly sympathetic with that spirit and had no trouble honoring it without lapsing into bathos. Indeed, if the music itself did not serve up any of the substance of Mahler’s later work, one could still appreciate the balance among these four instruments and the attentiveness of all performers in maintaining that balance.

Indeed, balance was the unavoidable weakness of the opening selection, Robert Schumann’s Opus 132 suite of four short pieces Märchenerzählungen (fairy tales), scored for clarinet, viola, and piano. This was probably written to complement the slightly earlier Opus 113 suite of another four short pieces Märchenbilder (fairy tale pictures), scored for viola and piano. These come from a time when Schumann’s health was beginning to deteriorate but had not yet begun to erode his skills as a composer.

In both cases any connection to fairy tales is more than a little enigmatic. However, Opus 132 tends to be more explicit in its connotations of dramatic effects. Still, the instruments are not there to enact different characters but simply to suggest the dramatic setting in which one of those tales could be embedded. Thus, this is a case in which effect is achieved through overall sonority, rather than any of the individual contributions. From this point of view, clarinetist David Neuman could not have been better in doing his part to achieve that overall effect. Similarly, pianist June Oh clearly understood Schumann’s keyboard rhetoric and knew just the right levels of intensity applicable to each of the four pieces in the set.

The weak link in the chain, however, was Wayne Roden’s viola work, whose piano dynamics yielded some effective sonorities but who could not bring his forte to a level that would avoid getting lost in the shuffle. The result was that, where the dramatic mattered most, the overall effect simply collapsed. One almost got the impression that the group had only worked together in a small room, which meant that they were totally unprepared for the radically different conditions afforded by the Davies stage. This is a performance that deserved the intimacy of the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In Davies things were already falling apart in the opening measures, and they were never able to recover.

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