Friday, May 12, 2017

Late Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music from SFCM Students

If Tuesday night’s Graduate Composition Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) offered an impressive account of things to come, then last night’s Graduate Chamber Music Recital by violinist Yuqian Zhang can be taken as a sign that the past will be in good hands. The program was firmly coupled in the last decades of the nineteenth century, coupling César Franck’s 1886 sonata in A major with Anton Arensky’s Opus 32 (first) piano trio in D minor, written in 1894. Zhang’s accompanist for the Franck sonata was pianist Mengni Tang, while her trio partners were cellist Chiyuan Ma and pianist Xin Zhao.

Arensky was about two decades younger than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and one decade older than Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. His music tends to be overlooked by those who do not specialize in the history of Russian music; and, while it would be unfair to accuse him of carrying on Tchaikovsky’s torch, it would not be unfair to approach his two piano trios as reflections on Tchaikovsky’s only piano trio (Opus 50 in A minor, composed in 1882, the year of Scriabin’s birth for those who like to seek out connections). Even the overall architecture of Arensky’s Opus 32, which concludes by reflecting on how it began, recalls Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50, as does the preference for elegiac rhetoric.

Nevertheless, last night’s performance made a case for the assertion that one can still perform Arensky’s trio as a journey of discovery. Zhang’s account of the virtuosic bowing techniques in the second (Scherzo) movement served up sonorities that one seldom (if ever) encounters in Tchaikovsky; and the group as a whole knew how to balance technique and expressiveness to deliver the elegiac without letting it sound maudlin. It is also worth noting that this was, indeed, a “chamber music” group with just the right balance of individuals engaged with their parts and individuals engaged with each other. The problem with Graduate Chamber Music recitals is that one wonders if the members of a group that works well together will end up going their own separate ways.

The Franck selection, on the other hand, was far more familiar. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for chamber music aficionados to avoid it in the course of concert-going. This is a case in which the attentive listener expects the technique to be solid and considers whether the expressiveness has its own sense of uniqueness. This particular account did not serve up any particularly striking surprises; but, as was the case with the trio, it still shone as the product of the close collaboration of two performers for whom awareness of each other counted for as much as awareness of Franck’s demands.

The program as a whole was given an enthusiastic reception upon its conclusion. It did not take much to encourage Zhang to play an encore. She turned to Jascha Heifetz’ arrangement of Claude Debussy’s song “Beau Soir.” This was one of Debussy’s earliest compositions, so early that it predates Franck’s sonata by about a decade! The music reflects the quietude of the poem by Paul Bourget that Debussy was setting, and Heifetz’ arrangement basically preserves that quietude in the absence of the words. Zhang clearly appreciated the spirit behind this arrangement and was rewarded with the stillness of keen attention on the part of her audience.

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