Sunday, May 28, 2017

Chamber Music at Davies Goes Out with a Delightful Flourish

This afternoon Davies Symphony Hall hosted the final program in the Chamber Music Series presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and featuring primarily SFS musicians as performers. The program consisted entirely of works composed during the twentieth century; and the prevailing rhetoric was one of exuberantly high spirits, articulated through a variety of different styles. Indeed, that variety even permeated the most delightful offering on the program, a composition by Lou Harrison entitled, appropriated enough, “Varied Trio.”

Ironically, the notes for the program book overlooked the local significance of this piece. Harrison composed it in 1986 for percussionist William Winant, pianist Julie Steinberg, and violinist David Abel, all members of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) at the time (although the piece was given its premiere performance on February 18, 1987 in Hertz Hall on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley). During this season in which May 14 was Harrison’s 100th birthday, Winant has supervised several different performances of “Varied Trio,” one of which was included in SFCMP’s Lou Harrison: A Centenary Celebration festival last month.

I should thus begin with the personal observation that this was the first time I experienced a performance of “Varied Trio” in which Winant was not involved! The percussion part, which required three different stations, each outfitted with different arrays of percussion instruments, was taken by SFS Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly. He was joined by violinist Melissa Kleinbart and Eric Zivian, pianist with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble.

The “varied” quality of the music involves styles that alternate among Oriental references, eighteenth-century dances, and an elegy involving rich twentieth-century chromaticism. There is also considerable variation in the use of resources. That elegy is a violin solo accompanied by a few vibraphone strokes at the very beginning and the very end and an equally small number of arpeggiations from the piano in the middle. The movement provides the “still center” of the entire composition with a delicious sense of serenity. On the other hand, the “Bowl Bells” movement that precedes it (requiring tuned rice bowls played with chopsticks) is punctuated by only a few pizzicato gestures on the violin while Zivian struck his instrument with a small wooden mallet. There was no doubt that the performers made this their own characteristic interpretation, demonstrating that Harrison’s music can maintain its freshness through the “varied” skills of different performing groups.

A similar contrast of vigor and quiet introspection could be found in Francis Poulenc’s sextet, which he composed in 1931 and revised in 1939. He scored this for piano (Robin Sutherland) and wind quintet, played this afternoon by Tim Day (flute), Eugene Izotov (oboe), Jerome Simas (clarinet), Rob Weir (bassoon), and Bruce Roberts (horn). Here, again, the “still center” can be found in the middle movement, although its own center is a bit of rambunctious playfulness framed by the quietude of the outer sections. Similarly, the unabashed romping of the first movement encloses a quiet middle section, whose thematic content then returns at the conclusion of the entire composition.

The SFS performers could not have negotiated all of these mood swings any better than they did this afternoon (although Roberts did let one horn outburst at the beginning of the final movement get the better of him). They were certainly not shy when it came to any of those rambunctious qualities, but they also captured the genuinely introspective qualities of the quieter portions. “Genuinely” is definitely the right adverb here. Between 1931 and 1939 Poulenc was subjected to a tragic experience that led to his taking a more serious approach to religious faith; and, by his own account, the 1939 version involved a major reworking of the original. This afternoon’s performance thus summoned up a sense of expressiveness that was consistent with Poulenc’s own life experiences.

Light without the shadows could be found in Eugene Goosens’ Opus 41, a pairing of two movements, the first called “Pastorale” and the second “Arlequinade.” Goosens scored these movements for flute (Day), oboe (Izotov), and piano (Day’s son, Britton Day). Goosens was born in London, the son of a Belgian violinist and conductor. Opus 41 was composed in 1924 and reflects an interest in the pastoral that can be found in other British composers during the first half of the twentieth century. Particularly interesting was the composer’s command of the wind parts, dealing with the two instruments both separately and in several intriguing blends. (Goossens brother Leon was an oboist.) This afternoon marked the first SFS performance of this piece, and we have every reason to hope that it will not be the last.

The only weakness of the afternoon came with the opening selection. This was Samuel Barber’s Opus 11 string quartet in B minor, composed in 1936. Barber would subsequently repurpose the middle movement of this three-movement composition, scoring it for string ensemble and calling the result “Adagio for Strings.” However, there is a transparency in the original version through which one can better appreciate the nuanced manner in which thematic material seamlessly shifts from one instrument to another. I also have to say that, when all four parts ascend to their respective upper registers for the climax, a skilled string quartet is less likely than a string orchestra to sound like a bunch of yowling cats.

This afternoon’s quartet of violinists Yun Chu and Amy Hiraga, violist Nancy Ellis, and cellist Peter Wyrick definitely had the necessary skills. That climax could not have been more moving in its intensity. However, just as intense is the agitation that the listener encounters in the outer movements, energetic gestures that Barber deployed with some fascinating alternations between parallel octaves and rich harmonies. The four SFS string players never mustered the energy required through which that intensity could deliver the necessary blows to the attentive listener. For all the understanding that had gone into the middle movement, the surrounding framework came across as little more than a matter-of-fact reading.

Fortunately, things picked up considerably for the remainder of the program, leaving any problems with the Barber as a distant memory.

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