Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Imaginative Chamber Music Programming

For this morning’s “concert in cyberspace,” I shifted my attention to a recital featuring students in the Conservatory of Music division of the Colburn School, located in downtown Los Angeles, directly across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The entire program was devoted to performances coached by visiting pianist Orli Shaham; and, even before the first notes sounded, it was clear that this would be an impressive journey. The first half of the program was devoted to two radically different approaches to modernism. The opening selection was a four-movement concertino, which Leoš Janáček composed in 1925. Scoring was imaginatively conceived piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon; and the first two movements were actually duos for piano and, respectively, horn and E-flat clarinet. This was followed by a leap of a little less than 90 years into the future with a composition for two vibraphones and two pianos that Steve Reich entitled simply “Quartet.” The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 (first) piano quartet in the key of C minor.

Shaham provided the audience with a frame of reference by giving each performance a brief but informative introduction. However, what was particularly impressive was that, while all of these pieces involved a demanding piano part (two in the case of the Reich), Shaham clearly wanted the audience to know that the concert was all about the students. Even when the piano part was clearly in the foreground, she knew how to encourage the listeners to pay attention to what the students were doing. The fact that she could do this with three compositions, each radically different from the other two, was highly impressive and made the act of listening (even when mediated through cyberspace) thoroughly compelling.

Back when it was still fun to go to student recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the heart of that “fun factor” always resided in the chamber music repertoire. It was as if the entire institution had dedicated itself to the cultivation of strong personal ties that are vital to delivering engaging accounts of the compositions in that repertoire. If the program that emerged through Shaham’s coaching was representative of the overall student experience at Colburn, then this is a source of future performers that deserves considerable attention.

I have only one bone to pick with Shaham. Before beginning the final selection, she noted that those in the audience might never again encounter Reich sharing a program with both Janáček and Fauré. With all due respect, I would suggest that Shaham is unaware of the sort of programming one often encounters in the chamber music recitals performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall. If the journeys at SFCM are no longer as exciting as they were during the last decade, the chamber music repertoire one now encounters at Davies frequently involves highly imaginative juxtapositions of the individual selections, frequently leaving the audience with an energizing sense of discovery, even when an “old favorite” may be on the program.

However, in spite of any “rooting for the home team,” this chamber music from Colburn was definitely inspired in both repertoire and execution. Sadly, I did not succeed in finding any further Colburn chamber music recitals on YouTube. I can only hope that this will change through initiatives by both faculty and visitors.

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