Thursday, November 7, 2019

A Bold and Imaginative Gift Concert from SFP

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented its Gift Concert for 2019–20 season. Made possible through the generous support of George and Camilla Smith, this is a concert that offers free admission to subscribers and donors and usually provides the opportunity of a “first look” at a rising talent. Last night that talent was South Korean violinist Bomsori Kim, making her SFP debut.

Her accompanist was Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen, who had made his SFP solo debut in March of 2008. My own first contact with Pohjonen took place in January of 2011 in Davies Symphony Hall, when he was the concerto soloist (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 in C minor) when Marek Janowski took the podium as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). That performance preceded his second SFP recital. He returned to Davies the following November for an SFS subscription concert organized by Michael Tilson Thomas around the chamber music of Franz Schubert. Pohjonen took the piano part in a performance of the D. 667 “Trout” quintet in A major.

As accompanist Pohjonen consistently knew how to engage with Kim over the course of a highly imaginative repertoire that was probably unfamiliar to most of the audience. By way of a benchmark, the only piece on the program that was part of Jascha Heifetz’ recorded repertoire was the final selection, Franz Waxman’s “Carmen Fantasie,” originally composed for the 1946 movie Humoresque. This was a wild and wooly traversal of many of the themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, clearly conceived to allow the soloist to pull no end of virtuoso rabbits out of a hat while making it a point to one-up the earlier flamboyant fantasy that Pablo de Sarasate had derived from Bizet’s source material.

Waxman’s version holds a high place on my own “guilty pleasures” list. Last night it seemed as if both Kim and Pohjonen shared my attitude. Kim jumped through one flaming hoop after another while maintaining the cool disposition of confidence in every trick she pulled. This may have been the icing on a far more substantial cake, but it was still irresistible.

The cake itself, so to speak, was a “multi-layered” affair bringing together four composers. The first half presented Robert Schumann’s Opus 105 (first) violin sonata in A minor, three of the six pieces collected by Jean Sibelius as his Opus 79, and Karol Szymanowski’s Opus 28, which couples a nocturne with a tarantella. The intermission was then followed by Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 94a in D major sonata, originally written for flute and piano but reconceived for violin at the suggestion of David Oistrakh.

Of those four selections, the Prokofiev is the one most likely to have been previously encountered. Prokofiev satisfied Oistrakh with an array of virtuoso passages that were definitely beyond the scope of a solo flute. Nevertheless, the overall rhetoric of assertive interplay between soloist and accompanist was as powerful as Prokofiev had first conceived it, if not more so. The music sometimes recalls the more vigorous rhetoric associated with Prokofiev’s time in Paris; but there was also a prevailing mood of melancholy, which, perhaps, reflected the hardships of World War II. Nevertheless, a confident optimism arises in the playfulness of the final movement; and neither Kim nor Pohjonen was shy about letting that playfulness run its course.

In a somewhat similar context Szymanowski left Berlin during the early stages of World War I, retreating to his family estate in the Ukraine. The nocturne and the tarantella were originally composed separately and only later joined together for publication. Indeed, while the nocturne reveals the dark side of Szymanowski’s rhetoric, the tarantella was apparently composed after a night of drinking. Sadly his productive streak in the Ukraine would come to an end when the Bolsheviks took over the estate and threw the piano into a lake. Here, again, both Kim and Pohjonen clearly appreciated the breadth of Szymanowski’s rhetorical expressiveness and delivered the sort of account that leaves one hoping for another encounter with the music.

Schumann composed his first two violin sonatas, Opus 105 and Opus 121 in D minor, in 1851, a year in which several other chamber music works were written. The third sonata (WoO 27) was completed in 1853 but never published. There are those who see signs of Schumann’s mental breakdown in Opus 105; but those signs could just as easily be taken as experiments in phrasing that turn to prose, rather than poetry, as a substrate for rhetoric. Kim gave a highly personable account of the solo violin part suggesting that the composer was very much in command of his faculties when the piece was composed. Indeed, she made the case that the sonata deserves more attention within the larger community of violin recitalists.

The Sibelius selection, on the other hand, reflected an intimacy that one tends to overlook when thinking about that composer. The truth is that Sibelius himself was a violinist, suggesting that the frequently-played Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor is very much an act of personal expression. Nevertheless, he could clearly be just as expressive when working on a shorter durational scale. Kim clearly knew how to capture that expressiveness; and, for my part, she left me curious about the other three pieces in the Opus 79 collection.

While the Waxman composition may have felt like an encore selection, Kim returned to conclude the evening with a “real” encore. Somewhat in the spirit of the intimacy she had explored in Sibelius, she played Fritz Kreisler’s transcription for violin and piano of Antonín Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” the fourth of the seven songs he had collected in his Opus 55 Gypsy Songs. Considering how many fireworks were detonated during the Waxman performance, Kreisler’s quietude was definitely welcome; and Kim delivered it with all the expressiveness one could have expected from Kreisler himself.

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