Wednesday, July 6, 2016

July 30, 2009 : Summer Music West 2009: the first chamber music recital

As Doris Fukawa, Ensemble Programs Director for Summer Music West 2009, observed in introducing this afternoon's program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the performance of chamber music is a major challenge for the young. Her comparison of chamber music to basketball was appropriate: Every individual counts, but counts not only for individual actions but also for how those actions mesh appropriately with the actions of others. At the risk of sounding too clinical, this means that proper performance has much to do with child development. Soloists can begin to emerge as they acquire the skills for the technical mastery of their respective instruments, but the development of the listening skills required for chamber music takes place along a cognitive path that is quite separate from that of the physical capacity for technical development. That latter development can be enhanced through both exposure to others playing chamber music and efforts to play it oneself, but the nature of listening is so poorly understood that few educators have the gifts to cultivate it in others. Those of us who accept the theories of Piaget do not even know whether or not there are "stepping stones" along the path to acquiring listening skills, subgoals that must be achieved as prerequisite to the final objective.

I write all this as preface to the obvious recognition that there was considerable variation of skill in this afternoon's recital. To some extent that variation was instrument-related. The wind players, in general, seemed more capable of managing the "dual awareness" of both the music they were playing and what their fellow performers were doing. The string players, on the other hand, seemed to be at an earlier stage of getting their fingers around the notes; and their awareness tended to be the weakest. In between we had the pianists, some of whom never really connected while others "got it" with truly compelling performances. It thus seems appropriate to focus on the positive surprises, rather than the weaker cases that may ultimately be resolved as child development runs its course.

Most impressive was probably a performance of the first movement of the G minor piano quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 478). The students' attentiveness to both the music and each other was all the more outstanding in light of the fact that the viola part was taken by a violin student (playing a violin). Even with this acoustic shortcoming, each part in the quartet spoke with its own characteristic voice, even if the piano tended to reflect Mozart's own inclination to show off at the keyboard.

The pianist took on even more virtuosic demands at the end of the program with a shift to the two-piano repertoire. In this case the music was the set of variations that Witold Lutoslawski composed on the same theme that Sergei Rachmaninoff had used for his Paganini rhapsody. Lutoslawski composed these variations in 1941 to play with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik while they were trying to survive during the Second World War by performing in Warsaw cafés. Needless to say, café audiences tended to be more interested in entertainment than in musical sophistication; so it is reasonable to assume that Lutoslawski wrote the music to twit Rachmaninoff, whose rhapsody had already achieved warhorse status. His Warsaw audiences probably consumed his low humor (with or without the high virtuosity) with gusto. Thus, if the summer students were to be criticized at all, it would be for approach this music too seriously; but this can be forgiven, since getting through Lutoslawski's welter of notes at all is a pretty serious challenge! Whether or not they appreciated the composer's sense of humor, they knew enough to bring the program to its conclusion with an impressive display of fireworks.

July 31, 2009: Summer Music West 2009: the second chamber music recital

As was the case with yesterday's recital, there was considerable variation across this afternoon's extensive program of offerings. Once again, however, there were positive surprises, the most impressive of which was a truly stimulating reading of the first movement of Franz Schubert's C Major string quintet D. 956, scored for two cellos rather than two violas. This is another gem from Schubert's final year, which, as I have previously written, was "a time when he was as adventurous in composition as he was prolific." The added weight on the cello side is just the beginning of the adventure, as is the two-measure crescendo from piano to forte that opens the movement that the students performed. This was decidedly a case in which all five students were intimately connected to both Schubert's score and each other. Admittedly, I may have some bias, having come to this recital after having endured some rather lackluster readings of Schubert in cyberspace; but, since this is a piece I know very well, I feel I can have some objectivity in saying that this was a reading well worth the wait of most of the afternoon.

There was also a somewhat more evident sense of wit in this second recital, particularly in a wind quintet performance of Malcolm Arnold's setting of three sea shanties. Arnold begins with a truly inebriated paraphrase of "The Drunken Sailor" and from there goes madly off in all directions (as James Thurber once said). Wind players cannot get away with smiling while playing; so the fact that they "got" the humor of Arnold's approach had more to do with the fearless renditions of his most raucous gestures, particularly coming from the horn, which gets out of line with all sorts of Whitman-like yawps. If yesterday's effort to make fun of Rachmaninoff may have been lost in the performers' seriousness, Arnold's particular approach to humor could not be suppressed.

April 4, 2009: Notes without sounds

The program that pianist Natalya Lundtvedt selected to initiate the August is Piano Month! series of Noontime Concerts™ recitals at Old St. Mary's Cathedral had the potential to demonstrate the wide diversity of sounds that have been invoked in piano composition. This was achieved not only through a diversity of composers, including Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, and Claude Debussy but also in the diversity of approaches by a single composer, such as Schubert and Chopin. Johann Sebastian Bach added to the mix, not because the piano was his instrument, but because pianists both past (such as Ferruccio Busoni) and present (such as Richard Goode and, here in San Francisco, Frank French) have placed such emphasis on exploring sonorities consistent with his musical syntax. Even the least familiar composer, Akhmed Jevdet Gadzhiev, took a sound-based approach with his invocation on Oriental exotica. Unfortunately, while Lundtvedt brought a high level of technical command to each of these composers, she displayed little awareness of the extent to which the life of the music was in its sounds, rather than its notes.

This was particularly evident in her decision to perform two successive impromptus from Schubert's Opus 90 (D. 899), the second in E-flat Major and the third in G-flat Major. These two relatively short works speak in decidedly different voices. The E-flat Major is a perpetuum mobile with a rapid figure in triplet eighth notes weaving its way in and out of the "horizontal" voices through which its harmonic support is expressed. In contrast the G-flat Major is almost a "song without words," with a soprano voice above arpeggiated harmonies in a contrapuntal relationship with a bass-line continuo. One could almost say that Schubert was experimenting in the "orchestration" of these two solo piano compositions; and that sense of orchestration is even evident in the transcription of the E-flat Major impromptu made by Johannes Brahms as a study for the left hand playing alone. Sadly, for Lundtvedt these compositions sounded like little more than technical challenges to be mastered; and, while her mastery was both evident and admirable, it did little to contribute to these works (or any of the others on the program) being the sort of exciting listening experiences that they deserved to be.

Monday, July 4, 2016

August 2, 2009: Bach at the Proms

There are a variety of advantages to having a "virtual Proms" experience through the BBC iPlayer Web site. For most of us, the cost of travel probably ranks the highest, in addition to which there is not only the price of tickets but also whether or not they are even available (not to mention the amount of time spent waiting in line to find out that they are not available). Finally, there is the luxury of being able to pick and choose both the concerts you wish to attend (perhaps based on a review you have already read) and when you actually wish to have your concert experience.

Having already enjoyed Bernard Haitink's performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at Proms 5, my personal pendulum swung a considerable distance into the past for Proms 17. This was a "late evening" Proms concert of a comparatively shorter duration due to its beginning at 10:15 PM local time. I learned about it through the high praise it received from Richard Faiman in his Financial Times review, but I probably would have been curious without having read the review. The program consisted of four motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, such by the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with instrumentalists from his English Baroque Soloists providing the continuo. The reason I probably would have been drawn to this concert regardless of any reviews is that one of the first CDs I purchased was the 1982 Erato recording of these motets with Gardiner conducting an earlier generation of these ensembles. It would be fair to say that I learned these motets from the two CDs in that set, and they remain treasured among all of my other Bach recordings.

The four motets Gardiner selected were "Komm, Jesu, Komm!" (BWV 229), "Fürchte, dich nicht" (BWV 228), "Jesu, meine Freude" (BWV 227), and "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (BWV 225). The BBC broadcast benefitted from Gardiner's observations about these compositions. This began with the announcer leading him on by asking if he felt that the motets were inferior to the cantatas, to which Gardiner replied with a polite but emphatic negative. These are, indeed, impressive settings of sacred texts and may have enjoyed the advantage of not being churned out on a weekly basis, the way the cantatas were.

Most impressive is probably BWV 227, which was also the longest work on the program. It is one of those works that can be admired as much for its overall architecture as for the sensitivity Bach brought to setting its text. The program notes describe that architecture as follows:
‘Jesu, meine Freude’ is the most extended of Bach’s motets. The backbone of the text is provided by six verses of a hymn (1659) of the same name by Johann Franck – Bach twice incorporated verses from this hymn in his cantatas, BWV 81 and 133. Alternating with the hymn verses and their associated melody are five verses from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Chapter 8). Bach’s vocal textures range from three- to five-part writing and are organised in what one Bach writer, drawing upon a Blakean epithet has described as ‘fearful symmetry’.

In his interview with the announcer, Gardiner described that "fearful symmetry" as an isosceles triangle; and this above diagram is taken from the Erato notes to illustrate this point:
The one disadvantage of experiencing this performance only through audio is that, as both the announcer and Gardiner observed, that sense of symmetry was also realized through the physical disposition of the performers. Had there been greater stereo separation, one could have been more aware of this; but such separation would have been an artifact that would have distorted the ways in which Bach integrated his voices. The only solution would have come from visual cues; and it would be nice if Gardiner were to consider making a video document of the complete set of Bach motets, which could then be released in DVD form. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in listening to the recording of this Proms evening; and it provides an excellent opportunity to build up one's experiences of listening to Bach being performed by an expert in that music.