Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Violist Jodi Levitz Brings Impressive Diversity to her SFCM Faculty Artist Recital

The most (only?) memorable sentence from Arnold Schoenberg’s harmony textbook can be found at the very beginning of the preface (translated into English by Roy E. Carter):
This book I have learned from my pupils.
That was the spirit in which violist Jodi Levitz, Chair of String and Piano Chamber Music, introduced her Faculty 
Artist Series recital last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Performing with pianist Robin Sutherland, Levitz prepared a program that was apparently based on compositions that she had been coaching and decided to present herself. The selections were diverse; and, as will be seen, two of them required an additional performer.

Levitz chose to begin with a somewhat peculiar selection, if only because it had not been composed for viola. It was Franz Schubert’s D. 821 in A minor, which he composed for arpeggione and piano. The arpeggione was invented in 1823, conceived as a large version of a six-string guitar with the same number of strings tuned to the same pitches. (The name implied that the instrument was conducive the playing arpeggiated chords.) Like a guitar it was fretted, but it was intended to be bowed like a cello. This made it sort of a nineteenth-century version of a fifteenth-century gamba; however, the spacing of the strings was such that it was almost impossible to bow one string without sounding at least one adjacent string at the same time:

Florian Monheim's photograph of an arpeggione build in 1968 by Henning Aschauer (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Schubert composed D. 821 in November of 1824, but it was not published until long after his death in 1871, by which time the arpeggione had gone out of fashion. It is most commonly played on either the viola or the cello, both of which are probably more suited than the arpeggione was to the extended melodic lines that Schubert wrote for the solo part.

Having recently observed how composers like Ludwig van Beethoven would describe a duo sonata as being, for example, “for piano and violin,” it is worth making note of Schubert’s ordering. There is no questioning that Schubert composed a wide variety of impressively imaginatively piano compositions and would even sometimes give the piano its own distinctive voice in some of his song settings. However, in D. 821 the piano is very much an accompanying part; and Sutherland had just the right touch for his “supporting role.” This gave Levitz free rein to explore the rich diversity of thematic passages, almost all of which reveled in the velvety qualities of the lower register. The result was a delightfully intimate account of D. 821 that would have fit perfectly into the social setting of a Schubertiad, had the music not remained unknown for so long.

That intimacy carried over into the next selection, which was five of the pieces from Max Bruch’s Opus 83. While this was composed in 1910, about ten years before his death, it was Bruch’s final composition. It consisted of eight pieces scored for clarinet, viola, and piano. Bruch made it clear that these were not a “cycle.” Performers could select any subset of the eight and perform them in any order. Levitz and Sutherland honored Bruch’s instructions, playing the second, third, seventh, fifth, and fourth of the pieces (in that order, which allowed for a logical contrasting of both tempo and general rhetoric). They were joined by clarinetist Carlos Ortega, and the selection made it clear that Bruch was exploring a wide variety of approaches to interplay between clarinet and viola, ranging from alternating solos to some highly effective homophony.

The intermission was followed by Elinor Armer’s recently composed “Summer Garden,” a setting of a 1959 poem of the same title by Anna Akhmatova. The notes by Mariya Kaganskaya described the poem as “a reflection on reflections,” set in a garden in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad at the time Akhmatova wrote the poem) during a “white night” of summer when twilight never gives way to the darkness of night. Many of Armer’s “mirror” techniques are readily evident to the attentive listener, as is the reflection of the text itself into Kaganskaya’s English translation of the poem, which preserves the rhymed couplets (rhyme being another instance of reflection). Kaganskaya’s familiarity with this music came from her having sung the work for her graduation recital this past spring. Her warm mezzo tones definitely captured the rhetoric of the English text, and I must confess an inability to say whether she was equally attentive to the Russian portion. (I have every reason to believe she was!) Since the setting was scored for mezzo, viola, and piano, Armer was able to “compare and contrast” the respective low-register sonorities of voice and instrument, making the sonorities themselves as engaging as the evocative rhetoric of Akhmatova’s text.

The program concluded with Edwin York Bowen’s Opus 18 (first) sonata in C minor for viola and piano. York Bowen had the distinction of being both a pianist and violist (as well as playing horn and organ and conducting). Sutherland provided the introduction to this particular piece, which took the form of a brief and entertaining discourse on monotremes (mammals that lay eggs). The only living monotreme species are the echidna and the platypus, so the discourse tended to induce expectations of oddity.

Those expectations were not thwarted. York Bowen knew how to be eccentric without being insufferably outrageous. Many of his oddities involved abrupt rhetorical shifts, which Levitz and Sutherland negotiated as deftly as could be expected. Nevertheless, one got the feeling that the composer was also a bit of an exhibitionist; and, while he had no difficulty being showy, he did not necessarily have a good sense of when to stop. Given how much rich content had preceded his Opus 18 sonata, it was hard to avoid the feeling that York Bowen’s sonata overstayed its welcome long before the third movement homed in on the final coda.

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