As programs go, the final Chamber Music Series concert, presented by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall, filled a relatively narrow temporal window. At one end was a piano trio by the Armenian composer Arno Babajanian, which was given its world premiere in 1952 and was performed this afternoon by violinist David Chernyavsky, cellist David Goldblatt, and pianist Yana Reznik. At the other end was the “Fantasy Duo” scored for cello and bass by Fred Bretschger, performed by Goldblatt and Scott Pingel on bass. Between these was situated a horn trio, somewhat in the spirit of the Opus 40 trio by Johannes Brahms, composed by John Harbison in 1985. This was performed by Dan Carlson on violin, Mark Almond on horn, and Marc Shapiro on piano.
Since this trio was a substitute for the originally-scheduled fifth string quartet by Béla Bartók, the original window of the program would have been decidedly wider. Nevertheless, the first two works on the program would have provided excellent preparation for listening to that Bartók quartet. Bretschger’s duo was the opening selection, and it did not take long to recognize that he was very fond of the harmonic tetrachord, whose intervals are one half-step, three half-steps, and one half-step. This has a very “Hungarian” sound; and the scale that consists of two harmonic tetrachords separated by a whole step is sometimes called the “Gypsy major” scale. Mind you, the Hungarian influence on Bretschger is not particularly strong; but it is strong enough to suggest a nod or two to Bartók.
Similarly, Babajanian’s Armenian rhetoric, which probably owes much to the mentorship of Aram Khachaturian, also draws heavily on the harmonic tetrachord. However, while that tetrachord weaves its way in and out of Bretschger’s duo, Babajanian’s trio is much more explicitly ethnic. This clearly reflects influence from Khachaturian, which, in turn, was probably motived by the desire to bring a distinctive “Armenian voice” to the concert hall. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate how that one tetrachord could establish an “implicit bond” between the two opening selections, which would have then prepared listeners for Bartók’s quartet.
Instead, Harbison’s trio was “something completely different.” Mind you, the notes he prepared (which were not provided as an extra sheet for the program book) never say anything about Brahms’ trio. Rather, he plays up the significant differences between horn and violin. However, if his goal was to guide the listener through a path of distinctively different sonorities, he never seemed to deploy his content in ways that would both seize and maintain listener attention. Instead, it almost feels as if, relatively early in the score, listeners might decide “Yep, those sure are different sounds! What else do you have to say?” That is the moment when even the most attentive and well-intentioned listener is likely to break with a composition that borders on the tedious (if not crossing the line).