Sunday, February 25, 2018

Influence Without Anxiety in SFS Chamber Music

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the latest program in their Chamber Music Series. That program was structured around two substantial piano trios, each the product of a composer that clearly knew how to draw upon influences from the past while still managing to create music that allowed for a generous expression of his own personal voice. Those composers were, in order of performance, Anton Arensky and Antonín Dvořák.

The more impressive of these was the playing of Dvořák’s Opus 65 in F minor by violinist Melissa Kleinbart and cellist Amos Yang, joined by pianist Eric Zivian. Dvořák had the advantage of having made a deep impression on Johannes Brahms, whose encouragement included recommending Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock. It is therefore easy to image that Dvořák would have taken an interest in Brahms’ chamber music. Thus, in 1883, when Dvořák began work on his Opus 65, it would not be out of the question that he would have been exposed (on paper if not in performance) to Brahms’ own second piano trio (Opus 87 in C major, originally published in 1882) and his first string quintet (Opus 88 in F major, also published in 1882). For that matter, by 1883 Brahms had published all three of his piano quartets.

This is not to suggest that Dvořák was explicitly trying to imitate Brahms, nor was he using any of these earlier chamber music compositions to serve as a model. Nevertheless, one encounters enough surface-level gestures, even in inner voices, that are likely to resonate with those who know their Brahms chamber music well. At the same time, however, the overall rhetoric positively vibrates with many of the Czech influences we tend to expect in Dvořák’s music; and it is through those influences that Dvořák vigorously establishes the identity of his own expressive voice as a composer. This afternoon’s performers clearly grasped the nature of that identity and could not have done a better job of presenting it compellingly to the audience.

1910 postcard photograph of Anton Arensky (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Arensky’s first piano trio (Opus 32 in D minor), on the other hand, probably reflects a richer variety of influences. The strongest of these probably came from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (which seems not to have gone down very well with Arensky’s teacher at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). Certainly, it is not difficult to detect a “family resemblance” between Opus 32 and the elegiac tone of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50 piano trio in A minor. (For that matter Sergei Rachmaninoff had composed his Opus 9 “Trio élégiaque” in D minor at the end of 1893, the year before Arensky composed his Opus 32.) The notes for the program book by James Keller also detect the presence of Camille Saint-Saëns (the scherzo from the Opus 22 piano concerto in G minor) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 49 (first) piano trio in D minor. I might also account for a soupçon of Alexander Scriabin in the third movement.

Nevertheless, even with all of those influences, Arensky was as capable as Dvořák at finding his own voice in those layers beneath surface-structure similarities. Unfortunately, this afternoon’s account by violinist Diane Nicholeris and cellist David Goldblatt, joined by pianist Gwendolyn Mok, never rose to as compelling a level as that of the Dvořák performance. Much of the problem was that Mok could not keep her dynamics under control and tended to drown out the better part of the cello part. (Given that Goldblatt has at least two successful performances of the music of George Crumb under his belt, I cannot imagine that he is shy about his dynamics!) This resulted in little justice being done to the surface structure and even less to the deeper levels. With another pianist both Nicholeris and Goldblatt would probably have been more effective as advocates for Arensky.

On the other hand pianist Britton Day deserves to be singled out for his disciplined command of dynamic levels during the opening selection on the program, a trio for flute, violin, and piano composed by Nino Rota in 1958. This was written long before Rota was tapped to provide music for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films; and, for that matter, the trio also predates almost all of Rota’s work with Federico Fellini. Nevertheless, all three of the movements of this trio serve up a rich diversity of approaches to wit, a deft command of the rhetoric that probably did not escape Fellini’s notice.

For this performance Day accompanied flutist Robin McKee (who happens to be his mother) and violinist Mariko Smiley. Both of them appreciated Rota’s capacity for wit but also saw the virtues of taking an understated approach to it. The piano part, on the other hand, had a rather generous share of raucous rhetoric, which ran the risk of overwhelming the other two instruments.

Fortunately, Day seems to have caught on to a technique that I recently encountered while reading Theodor W. Adorno’s Towards a Theory of Music Reproduction (actually a scrupulously edited account, provided by Henri Lonitz, of a rich collection of notes and draft versions that Adorno had been compiling before his death). Adorno observed that a loud passage can be identified by its very first notes, after which the player is free to drop the dynamic level in the interest of balancing with the other players. Day exercised a solid command of this approach, allowing those of us on audience side to enjoy the full scope of Rota’s wit.

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