Yesterday afternoon Davies Symphony Hall hosted the opening concert in the 2017–18 Chamber Music Series. This series was initiated by the San Francisco Symphony to provide a platform for SFS members and their colleagues to perform works from the chamber music repertoire. Yesterday afternoon offered the audience one of the most adventurous challenges taken on by those players. This was George Crumb’s only composition for string quartet, “Black Angels.”
It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Crumb’s music has been performed in a Chamber Music Series recital. The program for May 24, 2015 included his “Vox Balaenae” (the voice of whales), performed by the trio of Linda Lukas (flute), David Goldblatt (cello), and Gwendolyn Mok (piano). All three instruments were electronically enhanced and played on a darkened stage lit only by dim blue lights. In addition each of the players wore a black mask. As a result the performance was theatrical as well as musical.
Yesterday afternoon Goldblatt returned with his cello, performing this time with Sarn Oliver (first violin), Yun Chu (second violin), and David Gaudry (viola). This time the instruments were not merely “electronically enhanced.” They were electric versions of the traditional instruments. Only the basic frame supporting the strings, bridge, and tuning pins was left intact. The rest was a minimal suggestion of the shape of the instrument, serving only to accommodate the physical instincts of the performer. All sounds were the results of pickups on the frame and the electronic logic processing the signals from those pickups.
Each player also had a table of “additional gear,” consisting of objects to be used in the process of playing his respective part. The two violinists and the violist each had a sent of tuned crystal glasses, and the second violinist and cellist were required to play a suspended gong. A full account of all the materials required to play “Black Angels” is included on the composition’s Wikipedia page.
Crumb gave the piece the subtitle “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land.” He also had his own way of writing the date on the title page: “Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli).” This is the most explicit gesture Crumb made in acknowledging the Vietnam War (“tempore belli”). Both Gaudry and Oliver introduced the performance with some explanatory remarks, including structures involving the interplay of the numbers 13 (for Hell) and 7 (for Heaven). Their remarks were further enhanced by James M. Keller’s notes for the program book.
Like “Vox Balaenae,” the performance was as much theater as it was music. With the assistance of all the background material provided, the theatrical experience was intensely compelling, matched only by a sense of marvel at the rich variety of sonorities coming from the stage and the attentive skills of the performers in eliciting those sonorities. For those interested in history, “Black Angels” was the first piece performed by the Kronos Quartet; but, when they brought their performance to the University of California at Los Angeles, members of the audience had only a program sheet giving the title and the composer and no other background information. However, “Black Angels” is anything but “pure music;” and the rich body of context provided by both the program book and the performers did much to intensify the theatrical experience while also allowing the listener to appreciate the intricate structures behind the musical experience.
Equally expressive was the account of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 87 piano quartet in E-flat major. In this case the performers were violinist Dan Carlson, violist Matthew Young, cellist Amos Yang, and pianist Sayaka Tanikawa. As many know, Johannes Brahms had been a strong advocate for Dvořák going back all the way to 1875, when he was on a competition jury that awarded Dvořák the Vienna State Prize. The two only met in 1877, probably after Brahms had successfully recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock. By that time Brahms had completed all three of his piano quartets, so Dvořák’s decision to compose Opus 87 in 1889 may have had personal connotations.
Without dwelling on wordplay, the music is definitely personable. It even picks up on Brahms’ preference for the cello during the slow movement. This is followed by a dumka movement, providing Dvořák with yet another opportunity to explore what was probably his favorite structural framework. Taken as a whole, the quartet is a thoroughly joyous composition; and yesterday afternoon’s performance did not short-change any of the exuberance that the composer had packed into the score’s rhetoric.
Similar exuberance could be found in the remaining work on the program, the Opus 6 divertissement that Albert Roussel composed for wind quintet and piano. The pianist was Britton Day, performing with his father Tim Day (flute), Russ deLuna (oboe), Steve Sanchez (clarinet), Rob Weir (bassoon), and Robert Ward (horn). The piece consisted of a single movement in ternary form, embedding a slow section between spirited outer sections.
Keller’s notes focused on the year in which Roussel wrote this piece, 1906. He noted that the music itself was closer in spirit to composers like Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc than it was to the work of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Both Milhaud and Poulenc were particularly comfortable in writing chamber music for winds, and Poulenc even wrote a sextet for exactly the same resources Roussel had required. Thus, the music is a bit of a “forward pass;” and yesterday’s performance seemed to be aware of those “future connections,” acknowledging them through the rhetorical verve brought to the execution.
Chamber Music Series programs are often distinguished by the broad diversity explored by the performers, but that diversity was particularly notable yesterday afternoon and in ways that were thoroughly satisfying.