Monday, October 11, 2021

SFS Chamber Music Series Returns to Davies

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) launched its Chamber Music Series through which SFS musicians and their colleagues have an opportunity to explore the diverse aspects of the chamber music repertoire. For its first program since the imposition of lockdown conditions, the series coupled two works composed during the last decade with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 57 piano quintet, composed in 1940. This made for impressive diversity in which the visual element was often as striking as the auditory.

Indeed, the opening selection, “Perfectly Voiceless” by Devonté Hynes, was originally intended as part of a full-evening dance production by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Hynes composed on a digital audio workstation, after which he worked with the Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion quartet to orchestrate the score for their instruments, primarily an ensemble of marimbas of different sizes. San Francisco audiences had their first opportunity to listen to “Perfectly Voiceless” when Third Coast included it on the San Francisco Performances program they presented in April of 2019. That performance was choreography unto itself as the members negotiated paths through a stage filled with instruments and music stands.

Yesterday afternoon’s percussion quartet was led by SFS Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly, joined by Bryce Leafman, Stan Muncy, and Marty Thenell. Their command of the many instruments required by the score and the choreography required to negotiate those instruments was as impressive as it had been when performed by the quartet for whom the music had been composed. For my part, a second opportunity to experience a performance of this music was even more stimulating than the first. I was in a better position to appreciate the subtle shifts in sonorities arising from the details in the score.

It is also worth noting that Nissly was one of the founding members of Third Coast when it was first formed in 2004. However, he left Chicago after about a year, eventually securing his SFS post in 2013. Nevertheless, his memories of the original spirit of Third Coast may have informed yesterday’s performance, even if only slightly.

Like “Perfectly Voiceless,” Shinji Eshima’s “Bariolage” also explores a rich repertoire of sonorities; but the instrumentation could not be more different. The piece was composed in 2016 for SFS musicians Amos Yang (cello) and Charles Chandler (bass) on a commission by Michèle and Larry Corash. The title refers to a bowing technique of rapid alternation between notes on adjacent strings.

However, there is much more to the foundations of Eshima’s score than bariolage technique. Eshima himself currently plays bass for both the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet, holding the position of Associate Principal Bass for the latter. His experiences as a performer have provided him with a solid foundation of technical and rhetorical devices exchanged by the two musicians. Indeed, much of the prevailing rhetoric is more reflective, emphasizing that technique is simply the platform from which expressiveness may be explored. As a result, that expressiveness threw new light on the approach to making chamber music taken by Yang and Chandler.

It is probably worth noting that three of the performers of the Shostakovich quintet were born in Russia: violinists David Chernyavsky and Polina Sedukh and pianist Asya Gulua. They were joined by Bay Area native Katie Kadarauch on viola and Canadian cellist Sébastien Gingras. However, the Russia of today’s musicians differs significantly from that of Shostakovich.

Indeed, before he began work on his quintet, he had fallen from the good graces of Stalinist authority in 1936 and spent two years keeping a low profile. Redemption came in 1937 with his Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor. Opus 57 was composed during those few good years prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

From a historical point of view, the structure of Opus 57 reflects on past music history. The opening movements are a prelude and a fugue, which were clearly inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Shostakovich would go on to compose his own Opus 87 set of 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys between 1950 and 1951.) The remaining three movements are more reflective on nineteenth-century rhetoric. Nevertheless, the thematic material is consistently and unmistakably Shostakovich, leaving a somewhat poignant reflection on the narrow window of time during which life was good for Shostakovich in the Soviet Union.

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