Sunday, April 16, 2017

Kumiko Sakamoto’s Conservatory Graduate Recital

Kumiko Sakamoto is the second violinist in the Thalea String Quartet, an ensemble of students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), which was appointed this season as the first SFCM Quartet-in-Residence. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Chamber Music; and, yesterday evening in the SFCM Recital Hall, she gave a chamber music recital that consisted of one violin duo, one duo for violin and viola, and one sonata for violin and piano. Each of these was a well-considered choice, making the overall experience a delight for anyone taking their listening seriously.

While each of Sakamoto’s choices had its own merits, the most fascinating was probably the sonata, which filled the second half of the program she prepared. This was Ottorino Respighi’s 1917 sonata in B minor. Respighi is probably best known for his richly (if not flamboyantly) orchestrated tone poems, his fascination (albeit somewhat distorted) with early music, and, most recently, his influence on John Williams. However, he composed a moderately generous body of chamber music; and the B minor sonata was his second violin sonata, the first having been composed in 1897.

If this sonata is representative, then Respighi could be quite effective in more intimate settings than we might have assumed. This is definitely a piece that deserves more attention than it has received; and one has to wonder if any of that attention was a result of Jascha Heifetz having recorded the sonata for RCA in 1950 (a time when RCA was making big bucks off of orchestral Respighi conducted by Arturo Toscanini). In introducing the sonata, Sakamoto mentioned the influence of Johannes Brahms; but one would hardly call this sonata imitative. To my own ears it came across as a highly original alloy, whose chief metals included not only Brahms but also Gabriel Fauré; and it would not surprise me if it was that amalgam that drew Heifetz’ attention.

Yesterday evening’s pianist was Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Sakamoto credited him with bringing this sonata to her attention. As far as I am concerned, he should be thanked. This was my first opportunity to listen to this music in performance, rather than from a recording; and it was very much a fresh account of the music. Sakamoto and Nakagoshi clearly invested the necessary effort to find their own path through this sonata’s three movements; and the result was an experience that captured the attention with its very first inquiring phrase and held that attention through the unfolding variations of the concluding Passacaglia. The time has definitely come for this sonata to emerge from the shadows.

Both of the duos were much earlier in their origins. The program opened with Georg Philipp Telemann’s Gulliver Suite (TWV 40:108), scored for two violins. The second violin part was taken by Sakamoto’s Thalea colleague, Christopher Whitley. The suite consists of an Intrada followed by four movements, one for each of the journeys in the Jonathan Swift novel for which the piece is named. One gets the impression that Telemann must have had fun with his programmatic descriptions. The small stature of the Lilliputians is depicted not only by playing in the high register but also though the notation of very small and closely packed notes on the page. (This part of the manuscript was my choice for a banner on the Facebook page for The Rehearsal Studio.) The “Brobdingnagian Gigue” then goes to the other extreme, making for an extreme departure from usual gigue conventions. However, the real gem yesterday evening came in the final movement with Whitley’s “Untamed Yahoos” continuously intruding on Sakamoto’s refined voice of the “Well-Mannered Houyhnhnms.”

The other duo was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 423 in G major, composed in 1783. Sakamoto suggested that the music for this duo was inspired by his 1782 K. 387 string quartet, also in G major, the first of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn. However, it is worth remembering that the E-flat major sinfonia concertante (K. 364), with solo parts for both violin and viola, was composed in 1779. Much of K. 423 can easily be taken as affectionate afterthoughts on the delight Mozart took in creating K. 364, combined with new thoughts on exchanges between violin and viola.

Yesterday evening’s violist was Deanna Badizadegan, and her chemistry with Sakamoto was consistently delightful. One could almost imagine this as an intimate conversation between Mozart (on the viola) and Haydn (on the violin). For all of its brevity, this duo is definitely a high point in the Mozart catalog; and it deserves many more performances on the caliber of the one presented yesterday evening.

Sakamoto’s program also included an encore. The intensity of the final movement of the Respighi sonata was complemented by Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (mirror in the mirror). This short work offers one of the best examples of Pärt’s tintinnabular approach to composition, particularly in the reverberating tones of the piano part. This piece has been given a wide variety of performances involving different instruments playing with the piano, but the combination of violin and piano was Pärt’s original choice. This made for a serenely meditative conclusion of an evening of highly stimulating programming.