Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) launched its 25th anniversary season with a program entitled A Garland for Weinberg. That title referred to composer Mieczysław Weinberg, born in Warsaw in 1919. The conclusion of his studies at the Warsaw Conservatory practically coincided with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. He managed to flee to the Soviet Union, where he lived until his death in 1996 (by which time the country was again called Russia). Not long after his arrival he formed a relationship with Dmitri Shostakovich, who helped Weinberg establish himself professionally and cautioned him about the delicate relationship that creative artists had with the Soviet authorities, particularly Joseph Stalin himself.
Each half of last night’s program began with one of Weinberg’s sonatas, which was then followed by a world premiere of a composition that served as a reflection on Weinberg’s work. The program then concluded with music from a Polish composer of the following generation, Krzysztof Penderecki, who was born in 1933. The final selection was “Leaves of an unwritten diary,” initially the title of his 2008 (third) string quartet, which Penderecki subsequently reworked to add a double bass part.
The Weinberg sonatas were his Opus 28 for clarinet and piano, composed in 1945, and his Opus 140 (fourth) sonata for solo cello, composed in 1986. (By the time of his death, Weinberg’s “opus count” had reached 154.) 1945 was the year in which Shostakovich wrote his ninth symphony, a boisterous sigh of relief at the conclusion of the Second World War. The tone of Weinberg’s Opus 28 is more somber, with a piano part that could easily have been influenced by Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor, one of his darker reflections on the War itself.
As almost always seems to be the case with his LCCE performances, pianist Eric Zivian hammered out Weinberg’s dark rhetoric with almost overwhelming intensity. Fortunately, the upper harmonics of the clarinet give just about every note the instrument plays an edge sharp enough to cut through almost anything. As a result, clarinetist Jerome Simas had little trouble making himself heard with an expressiveness that suggested shadows of darkness, rather than Zivian’s pitch-black bleakness. Simas even prevailed easily over the full-stick opening of the piano lid. Whether or not Weinberg had intended the sonata to be a confrontation between clarinet and piano, Simas prevailed in providing a rhetorical stance that engaged the listener through the sonatas three movements.
This piece was coupled with the world premiere of a concertino composed by Stephen Blumberg for a solo violin part (played by Anna Presler) performing with an ensemble of violin (Jory Fankuchen), viola (Phyllis Kamrin), cello (Leighton Fong), and bass (Michel Taddei). Weinberg himself wrote one concertino, his Opus 42, for violin and string orchestra; but Blumberg’s point of departure was Weinberg’s Opus 95, his second solo violin sonata. The piece was in five relatively short sections with a cadenza for the soloist preceding the finale. Over the course of its brevity, however, the piece took in a wide spectrum of expressive dispositions, all of which made for an engaging listening experience.
Fong was also the soloist in the Opus 140 cello sonata played after the intermission. One got the impression that he was still trying to establish a “good fit” for his phrasing (and probably also his intonation). Most troubling was that, while the movements were marked Andante, Allegretto, and Allegro molto, there was little sense of any change in tempo over the course of the entire sonata. The result was that most of the qualities of the sonata that were described so well in Presler’s program notes never quite registered in Fong’s execution.
Even more disappointing was the world premiere with which Opus 140 was coupled, “Writing the Letter” by Julie Herndon. In her own notes (which include references to letters written by both Shostakovich and Weinberg’s wife Natalya) Herndon explained that her composition was “based around the sound the practice of writing.” She thus made a recording of her own act of writing a letter, whose sounds were then processed for pitch extraction. Those pitches then served to provide the lexicon for a string trio (led by Presler on violin), performing against some of the concrete letter-writing sounds. Sadly, there was little to engage the curious listener in what resulted, due perhaps to the lack of balance between the recorded sounds and those being played by the performers.
The selection of Penderecki to conclude the program was more than a little perplexing. Weinberg may have been born in Poland; but, due to “circumstances beyond his control,” he became a thoroughly Soviet composer. As a result, he had very little connection to what creative composers in Poland, such as his near-contemporaries Witold Lutosławski and Andrej Panufnik or later composers like Penderecki were doing. Indeed, his Soviet ties sustained through all seventeen of his string quartets, the last one being written during the rise of glasnost.
As a result, “Leaves of an unwritten diary” sounded just as remote from the Weinberg canon as “Writing the Letter” did. It was also three times longer than Herndon’s piece and definitely felt that way. Scott Foglesong’s notes for the program book suggested a kinship with Paul Hindemith. A better point of reference would probably be Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 7 (first) string quartet in D minor, whose four movements are played without interruption and ramble on at such length that even the most attentive listener will need at least three iterations before serious sensemaking can begin to run its course.
Weinberg’s “garland” could have done with a few more hardy perennials.