Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Telegraph Quartet Makes its Herbst Debut with Passionate Romanticism

Last night the Telegraph Quartet of violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw gave its first performance in Herbst Theatre under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP). The occasion was the annual concert SFP organizes to present the winner of the international competition for soloists and chamber ensembles sponsored by the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation through a concert offered free of charge to SFP subscribers. This concert was distinguished, however, by the facts that the ensemble is based here in the Bay Area and that the group had performed for SFP a year ago this month at one of Salons at the Hotel Rex recitals.

They prepared a program that was neatly balanced between two twentieth-century composers in the first half and a major nineteenth-century composer in the second. That latter composer was Franz Schubert, and Maile observed in his brief remarks that Schubert’s intense expressiveness strongly influenced their approach to twentieth-century modernism. Thus, it was no surprise that Schubert was represented by one of his most passionate string quartets, D. 810 in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden,” since the second movement is a set of variations on the D. 521 song of the same name.

As the program notes by Eric Bromberger observed, death was definitely on Schubert’s mind while working on this quartet. Schubert had his first brush with debilitating illness (probably due to syphilis) in the fall of 1822; and his health suffered irreversible damage throughout 1823. He was only able to get back to work in 1824, and D. 810 was one of his first efforts. It would be no surprise that the D. 521 song, which he had composed in 1817, would have been back on his mind. The resulting composition was given its first performance exactly 191 years ago today (February 1, 1826) at the home of Josef Barth in Vienna. It would not be performed in public until almost five years after Schubert’s death.

Telegraph’s approach to this music provided just the right balance between the emotional darkness that pervades all four movements of this quartet and Schubert’s meticulous attention to structural detail, particularly through his imaginative capacity for prolongation. Because this is Schubert’s best-known quartet, it tends to get a generous amount of exposure. In an audience consisting heavily of the “SFP faithful,” it would have been familiar to many. Thus, it was important that Telegraph could cultivate their own unique voice for this piece, endowing it with that in-the-moment spontaneity that endows the whole chamber music genre with such a powerful potential for listener impact. Indeed, one could experience the immediacy of Telegraph’s interpretation not only through the listening experience itself but also by observing the rich use of body language that maintained “broadband communication” among the four players from beginning to end.

That physical approach to performance was equally informative during the less familiar offerings of the first half of the program. Telegraph made a bold move in choosing to begin with Anton Webern’s Opus 5 set of five short pieces. Each of these is a miniaturist study with an infrastructure so intricate that it continues to fascinate music theorists. However, while Webern is often classified as the most abstract among the abstractionists, Telegraph had no trouble bringing to the surface all of the intense passions lurking behind Webern’s abstract structures.

This is not as challenging a task as one might think. By the ninth measure of the first piece in the set, Webern has already settled into lush parallel thirds and sixths for the two violin parts, almost as if to smooth the feathers ruffled by the preceding eight measures. Similarly, while the fourth of the pieces provided a “mother lode” for exploration by the mathematically inclined, its mere thirteen measures divide almost perfectly in half, with each part ending with the rising sigh of the second violin part. Telegraph clearly appreciated these dramatic gestures and many others like them, presenting them to the attentive listener with equal measures of clarity and passion.

The Webern was followed by Leon Kirchner’s quartet, written about 40 years after Webern’s Opus 5. Kirchner’s studies included Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, Ernest Bloch at the University of California at Berkeley, and Roger Sessions in New York. He clearly appreciated how composers such as Schoenberg had tried to depart from the conventions of tonal harmony, but he had his own ideas when it came to maintaining the attention of the sympathetic listener. Those ideas included some of the same dramatic effects that had served Webern so well, along with other tropes that had established themselves in modernist practices during the first half of the twentieth century. (My own ear tends to pick up snatches of Béla Bartók from time to time.)

Those who had attended the Rex Salon may recall that Telegraph had played Kirchner’s quartet on that occasion. My own background includes a few more Telegraph performances of this piece, and it is definitely music that grows with increased familiarity. Last night the group illustrated how one particularly passionate theme migrates across all four movements of the quartet. Judging from audience response, the piece encouraged many to follow Telegraph on their journey through those four movements, eager to offer a warm reception at journey’s end. Perhaps the recognition that this music continues to resonate will encourage Telegraph to look into the other three quartets that Kirchner composed over the course of his lifetime.

[added 2/3, 12:50 p.m.: It was only after reading the account of this concert in the San Francisco Chronicle that I realized that I had not said anything about the encore! On the one hand this was a bit embarrassing, since the encore composer was one of my favorites, Benjamin Britten. Furthermore, it was very early Britten, composed in 1936 and never assigned an opus number. It was the second piece in a collection that Britten called Three Divertimenti, a waltz that was both lighthearted and wistful at the same time. In retrospect, I would conjecture that it was the very lightness of the music that led to my neglecting it, simply because my own thoughts were so thoroughly wrapped up in the intense expressiveness of all of the works on the program. By all rights the encore should have served to lift some of that weight, and I suspect that it did not for many in the audience. For better or worse, however, I was not yet willing to let go of that weight; and, when it came to writing about the event, my preoccupations got the better of me!]

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