Monday, May 1, 2017

SFS Musicians Present a “Czech++” Program of Chamber Music

Yesterday afternoon Davies Symphony Hall hosted the latest Chamber Music Series recital featuring members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The program was framed by the music of two major Czech composers separated by half a century. Ironically, neither of the compositions was written in the respective composer’s native land. The program concluded with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 97 string quintet in E-flat major, which he wrote in the summer of 1893, which he spent with a largely Czech agricultural community in Spillville, Iowa. The opening selection was by Bohuslav Martinů, who left Prague for Paris in 1923 and then fled the Nazis in 1941 by moving to New York, where he stayed until returning to Europe in 1953. The program began with his second piano trio in D minor, which he composed in New York in 1951. This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 36 (second) string quartet, composed in 1945 as part of Britain’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. The intermission was followed by an early work by the French composer Philippe Gaubert, three pieces written in 1915 that he called “Aquarelles” (water colors), scored for flute, cello, and piano.

Dvořák’s Opus 97 is the last of a “trinity” of “American” compositions, preceded by the Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor and the Opus 96 (“American”) string quartet in F major. Opus 97 is the one that is richest in recognizable Americanisms, which are most identifiable in the Allegro vivo scherzo (second) movement. However, the rondo form Finale (Allegro giusto) also suggests a strophic folk song style; and there are abundant song-like qualities in the Larghetto (third) movement. Those familiar with even a few of Dvořák’s string quartets are likely to be struck by how much he could do with a second viola (played by Matthew Young adding to the quartet of violinists Dan Carlson and Amy Hiraga, violist Katie Kadarauch, and cellist Peter Wyrick). Indeed, Young had the very first word in this quintet; and he was consistently instrumental (pun intended) in realizing Dvořák’s skill in complementing the two violins with three, rather than two, low strings. This performance reminded those in the audience of how fortunate we are to live in a community where such a quintet can be assembled as readily as the more conventional string quartet.

On the other hand the program book made note of the fact that the Martinů trio was receiving its first SFS performance. This was a bit of a stretch, since SFS is not primarily concerned with programming chamber music; and only the strings were SFS members, violinist David Chernyavsky and cellist Sébastien Gingras, both of whom have a strong interest in chamber music. The pianist was the Russian-born Asya Gulua, currently working for the Oregon Symphony.

Martinů had eclectic tastes and was not shy about exercising them. Thus it was not difficult to recognize some playfully warped references to Johann Sebastian Bach in the second of the trio’s three movements, while the composer used the final movement to reflect back on his Czech origins. The presentation of this trio reminded at least some of us of how seldom Martinů shows up in SFS subscription programming.

Gaubert would have been active as a conductor when Martinů made his move to Paris. By that time he had two chief conductor positions at the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and the Paris Opera. However, these were not the sorts of venues that would have been of much interest to the avant-gardist crowd with which Martinů quickly became involved. Indeed, when Paris was churning with excitement over the Ballets Russes productions of “Petrushka” and “The Rite of Spring,” Gaubert was probably enjoying the comforts of the flute section at the Conservatoire orchestra.

His “Aquarelles” can thus be taken as the efforts of a composer who probably delighted in the images of impressionist painting and sought to reflect on them through music. He chose to do this with a trio in which he substituted a flute (played yesterday by Robin McKee) for the violin. As might be guessed, the flute tends to dominate these three pieces, although there was no shortage of intimate exchanges with the cello line, played engagingly by Wyrick. It is also worth noting that the pianist was Britton Day, one of the accompanists at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, who happens to be McKee’s son. Intimacy was clearly of the essence in the performance of this trio, and yesterday’s presentation seemed entirely consistent with the rhetorical stance that Gaubert had in mind.

The most challenging work yesterday was the Britten quartet, composed shortly after the premiere of his Opus 33 Peter Grimes opera. Britten himself receives so much attention that his interest in much earlier English composers is often overlooked. I first became aware of this interest when I was working on piano accompaniments for a baritone colleague where I was working in Los Angeles. He wanted to work on selections from Purcell’s Orpheus Britannicus and used the Boosey & Hawkes edition for which Peter Pears edited the vocal parts and Britten provided figured bass realizations.

Some of the Purcell connections in the Opus 36 quartet are more obvious than others. The drone that opens the quartet most likely reflects the fantasia that Purcell composed based on a single note. However, by the time the quartet advances to the chaconne in the final movement, we are well into the thick of Britten’s own rhetoric.

While Britten probably never intended to be opaque, most listeners need to encounter his pieces several times before beginning to negotiate them with any sense of security. Yesterday’s quartet of violinists Carlson and Melissa Kleinbart, violist Jonathan Vinocour, and cellist Amos Yang did much to bring clarity to Britten’s elaborate textures; but their offering was still very much the heaviest part of the program. Ultimately, I came away with the realization that I needed to know this piece much better; and I hope that I shall have future occasions to do so.

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