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.