Monday, September 30, 2019

SFS Visitor Remains for Chamber Music

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, last week’s visiting concerto soloist with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), cellist Oliver Herbert, joined his SFS colleagues for the first Chamber Music Series concert of the108th season. Herbert took the second cello part in the final selection, a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 48 sextet in A major. He was joined by violinists Helen Kim and Chen Zhao, violists Katie Kadarauch and Matthew Young, and cellist Peter Wyrick. Composed in 1878, this was Dvořák’s first work to be premiered outside Bohemia.

Given that Johannes Brahms served, at least informally, as a mentor for Dvořák, it would be easy to conjecture that the latter’s work on Opus 48 had been informed by the two sextets composed by the former, Opus 18 in B-flat major (1860) and Opus 36 in G major (completed in 1865). Even the freshness of a major key may have been an influence. Nevertheless, Opus 48 is very much in Dvořák’s own voice, drawing upon his “local roots” but also departing from some of those traditions.

Most interesting in that regard is the Dumka (second) movement. This was a favorite structure for Dvořák with its sharp contrasts between melancholia and manic exuberance. Ironically, in Opus 48 those contrasts are much less extreme, making the movement more a sympathetic reflection on the style, rather than an instance of the style itself. The energy of the following Furiant movement, however, brings the listener back to more familiar Dvořák tropes.

I always like to observe that, when two cellos are involved in chamber music, neither is, in any way, “secondary” to the other. The second cello is usually de facto responsible for the lowest line, meaning that the instrument carries the weight, so to speak, of harmonic progression, generally for almost the entirety of the composition. Where Dvořák is concerned, the instrument must do “double duty,” contributing to the polyphonic fabric while also serving as “latter-day continuo.”

Herbert rose to the challenges of these responsibilities with the same sure confidence and expressive rhetoric that he had brought to his performance of Joseph Haydn at his subscription concert performances. Indeed, if there were any problems with the overall texture, they tended to have more to do with the fact that both the second violin and first viola parts involved replacements of personnel, suggesting that the group, as a whole, had less time cultivating awareness of each other than preparation usually affords. Nevertheless, because of the demand on resources, Opus 48 does not get played very frequently, and its appearance on yesterday’s program was most welcome.

The second half of the program was one of sharp contrasts with a world premiere preceding the Dvořák selection. Ron Minor’s recently-completed “Tutrovio II,” was a reworking of a 1993 duo for viola and trombone. This duo expanded to a quartet with the addition of parts for cello (Amos Yang) and bass (Daniel G. Smith). Nick Platoff was the trombonist, joined by Wayne Roden on viola. The overall preference for the lower register made for no end of intriguing sonorities; but what really stole the show was the agility with which Platoff handled no end of rapid-fire passages for the trombone. Minor took a bow from his vantage point in the “Conductor’s Box.” One could see that he was more than satisfied with this account of his music, and he had good reason to be so. For my part, I just hope that this piece warrants more than a “one-shot” performance experience.

The first half of the program turned out to be an “anxiety of influence” experience. It began with a trio for oboe (Russ deLuna), bassoon (Rob Weir), and piano (Britton Day) composed in 1994 by jazz pianist (and many other things) André Previn. However, the spirit of jazz seems to have mattered less than a grateful nod to Francis Poulenc, who had composed for the same combination of instruments. The program nodes by James M. Keller explicitly called out this connection, citing “Francis Poulenc, whose ghost lurks around many corners of this piece.” Mind you, by 1994 Poulenc had fallen out of fashion in most concert circles, so Previn’s nostalgic retrospection was a reminder of an earlier period of twentieth-century music that did not deserve to be forgotten.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (work of an unknown photographer from around 1893, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Previn’s trio was followed by the Opus 10 quintet in F-sharp minor, composed in 1895 by by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This was scored for clarinet (Steve Sánchez) and string quartet (violinists Florin Parvulescu and Diane Nicholeris, violist Gina Cooper, and cellist David Goldblatt). In this case the “ghost” was Dvořák’s, with reflections of American folk sources by a British composer with a father from Sierra Leone. Indeed, Coleridge-Taylor may well have been motivated by Dvořák’s “American inspirations” (and, where chamber music is concerned, Dvořák was primarily interested in strings and piano), The Opus 10 quintet clearly demonstrates that the composer had a solid command of the relationship between the clarinet and the string parts; and, if there were “remembrances of things past” in the music itself, there was still enough originality to make for an engaging listening experience.

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