Monday, June 4, 2018

Horn and Strings Chamber Music at Davies

Yesterday afternoon Davies Symphony Hall hosted the last of the Chamber Music Series in the 106th season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). This series was created to provide SFS musicians with an opportunity to explore the chamber music repertoire in addition to the symphonic works for which they rehearse every week of the season. Today’s concert provided a platform for two of the members of the Horn section, Principal Horn Robert Ward and Assistant Principal Horn Bruce Roberts, along with many of the string players, a  brief appearance by Associate Principal Flute Robin McKee, and several “visiting” pianists.

The major work on the program was the final selection, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 40 trio in E-flat major for horn, violin, and piano. Roberts was the horn player for this piece, joined by Yun Chu from the First Violins section and David Gross on piano. This piece had a fortuitous connection to this season’s programming since, as was previously observed, the “Albumblatt” Brahms selection that András Schiff took as his second encore for his second recital in Davies this past April was subsequently repurposed by the composer as the trio for the second (Scherzo) movement of Opus 40.

Taken as a whole, however, Opus 40 seems to have emerged as a series of intense mood swings. Both the Scherzo itself and the Finale are about as upbeat as one could expect, with the horn leading the way in driving forward the energetic thematic material. However, the Scherzo movement is framed by the melancholy of the opening Andante movement and the following Adagio mesto (which includes a hauntingly introspective account of what will then emerge as the Finale theme), while the Scherzo itself frames that significantly darker trio section.

Yesterday’s performance knew just how to negotiate those mood swings without overindulging in any of them. Roberts’ offered a consistently clear account of his part; and, while the horn cannot help but assert itself through its sonorities, Roberts always knew how to balance himself against the violin part. For his part, Gross consistently fit the piano work into the texture of those two instruments without letting his piano part dominate (always a challenge where Brahms’ writing for piano is concerned).

Brahms’ melancholy rhetoric was complemented by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 142 (fourteenth) string quartet in F-sharp minor, which concluded the first half of the program. The quartet members consisted of violinists Polina Sedukh and Raushan Akhmedyarova, violist Katie Kadarauch, and cellist Amos Yang. Shostakovich worked on this quartet in 1973, his first effort at composing after eighteen months of convalescing from his second heart attack. While the piece was not his final string quartet (it was next-to-last), there was some sense of finality behind it, particularly through his choice of the key of F-sharp major, the tonality of the tenth symphony that Gustav Mahler died before completing.

Shostakovich’s appreciation of Mahler shows up in many of his compositions, but this is definitely the darkest of them. Indeed, it follows what is often a rule of thumb for the overall rhetoric of a Shostakovich composition. If the music begins in an upbeat mood, expect that, by the conclusion, you will be immersed in the Slough of Despond. Today’s performance negotiated that descent with consummate skill, leaving all of us on audience side appreciating that the following intermission would give us a break before the program continued.

The opening selections for each half were probably less familiar to most of the audience. The program began with Bohuslav Martinů’s first piano quartet, composed in 1942 shortly after his move to the United States in 1941. The pianist for this performance was Marc Shapiro, joined by Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman on violin, Matthew Young on viola, and Barbara Bogatin on cello. Martinů was always interested in experimenting with alternatives to traditional forms, and this quartet provided some fascinating illustrations of his approaches.

Bohuslav Martinů working on his second symphony in New York, shortly after his arrival in the United States (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Czech Republic license)

It was thus no surprise that piano and strings would be almost entirely segregated over the course of the Adagio (second) movement. Even more interesting, however, was how Martinů had his own way of departing from the need for a tonal center. For example, his use of fourths in the first movement suggested that he may have taken a great interest in how Arnold Schoenberg had composed his Opus 9 (first) chamber music. (Schoenberg gave the tonality of this piece as E major but was definitely not slavishly committed to it!) The informed listener can also detect nods to the ways in which Béla Bartók would depart from a tonal center in much of his own string quartet writing.

In contrast tonality was far more secure in the first selection of the second half of the program. This was the lightest offering of the afternoon and definitely provided some well-needed cheerful rhetoric. The piece was “Souvenir du Rigi” (Rigi being one of the mountains in Switzerland), the Opus 34 of Franz Doppler, who described the piece as an “idylle” for flute, horn, and piano. The genre can probably be called “salon entertainment,” although the flute part (played by Robin McKee) takes on more than a fair share of virtuosic embellishments. Both horn (Ward) and piano (Britton Day) provided somewhat more sober passages, although there seems to be a passing reference to the “Ranz des vaches” (call to the cows) section of Gioachino Rossini’s overture for his William Tell opera. The score also required both Ward and Day to interject a few punctuations with finger cymbals. All this amounted to a bit of relaxation before settling into the far more sober account of Brahms.

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