Monday, February 24, 2020

Violins of Hope Chamber Music at Davies

Drawing of Theresienstadt living quarters (by Bedřich Fritta, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented a chamber music recital to mark its participation in the Violins of Hope project. This involved a trio of SFS musicians, violinist Raushan Akhmedyarova, violist Adam Smyla, and cellist Barbara Bogatin, who also provided background information about both Violins of Hope and the pieces being performed. Those pieces were written by two Czech composers, both of whom were actively involved in the cultural life of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Violins of Hope, in turn, was responsible for the restoration of the instruments performed by all three members of the trio. Each composer was represented by music performed on either side of the intermission.

Theresienstadt was not a death camp like Auschwitz. Its prisoners were held there until arrangements were made to transfer them to a more fatal destination. (Obviously, the prisoners were not aware of this deadly plan.) The Nazis even went as far as to declare Theresienstadt a “spa town,” with amenities such as concert performances given by the inmates presenting music written by other inmates. These were the circumstances under which the music played by the SFS trio was first presented.

The music performed before the intermission was a string trio composed by Gideon Klein in 1944. Klein was transferred out of Theresienstadt, first to Auschwitz and then to Fürstengrube. The circumstances of his death are unknown, but it is assumed that he died some time in 1945. His trio was recently recorded by the Black Oak Ensemble on their Silenced Voices album, which was discussed on this site this past October. The core of the trio is a Lento movement of variations on a Moravian folk song, framed by relatively short fast movements on either side. As might be expected, there is considerable darkness in both the theme and its variations; and it would be fair to say that the performance given yesterday afternoon was uncompromising in its rhetoric.

The intermission was followed by two compositions by Hans Krása, both composed also in 1944. The longer of these was a coupling of passacaglia and fugue. As Bogatin observed, this reflected all the way back to the practices of Johann Sebastian Bach; but the grimly sinuous passacaglia theme was more evocative of the sinister chromaticism of Anton Webern’s passacaglia (his Opus 1). To orient the listeners to Krása’s theme and how it then transformed into a fugue subject, Bogatin had Smyla play examples, which provided just the right amount of framework for attentive listening. As a more cheerful “post script” to their performance, the trio concluded with Krása’s “Tanec,” a short and vigorous dance movement with a few reverberations of Béla Bartók’s reflections on Hungarian sources. 1944 was the year in which Krása was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was put to death on October 17.

Fortunately, these grim reflections on dark times were framed by more upbeat selections. The program began with Malcom Arnold’s Suite Bourgeoise, a trio for flute (Robin McKee), oboe (James Button), and piano (Britton Day). This consisted of a Prelude movement followed by reflections on four styles of popular music of the time. (Arnold composed this suite in 1940.) There was more than a little satire in Arnold’s approach to each of these popular styles, and all three of the players knew exactly how to capture the composer’s humorous rhetoric. There were also many elegant duo passages for the two winds, and the harmonies emerging from McKee and Button could not have been smoother. Nevertheless, it was hard to shake off a sense of irony that Arnold composed this music during the dawning of the horrors in Germany that would lead to institutions such as Theresienstadt.

The program concluded with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 40, his trio in E-flat major scored for horn (Daniel Hawkins), violin (David Chernyavsky), and piano (Asya Gulua). This provided just the right doses of relief from the grim fates of Klein and Krása. Hawkins was particularly impressive with the smooth style he brought to his instrument, highlighting the vast array of lyric qualities that Brahms had envisioned. Indeed, the couplings of Chernyavsky and Hawkins were as compelling as those of McKee and Button, but with entirely different sonorities. While there were definitely moments of melancholy in Brahms’ score (one of which was shamelessly appropriated by Meredith Willson when he was writing the score for The Unsinkable Molly Brown), the overall rhetoric was one of sunny optimism, allowing the audience to leave Davies with a decidedly positive state of mind.

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