Originally published on May 21, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
The San Francisco String Trio (Bettina Musumelli, violin, Jodi Levitz, viola, and Tanya Tomkins, cello) offered a free concert at noon under the auspices of the University of California at San Francisco through an arrangement described in the program as follows:
The Chancellor’s Concert Series is a professional, classical music series funded by J. Michael Bishop, MD, Chancellor, to enrich the quality of life at UCSF and in the community. These half-hour concerts feature artists primarily from the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music faculty. This series was founded in 1998 by Chancellor Haile Debas, MD.
I have been meaning to check out this series for over a month; and, unfortunately, I could not make good on my intentions until the final concert of the spring season. Since I have not seen anything about a summer program, I am assuming that the series will resume with the fall semester.
There are not many opportunities to hear a string trio; and this is probably due, at least in part, to the sparseness of the repertoire for the ensemble. Since I have begun writing about concert performances, I have had the good fortune to hear string trios through both the Noontime Concerts™ series and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; but I have heard only two compositions in that genre. One of them, the string trio by Arnold Schoenberg, was performed only in an excerpt as part of a master class; and the other, the Opus 10 serenade in C major by Ernő Dohnányi, I have heard once at the Conservatory and once at a Noontime Concerts™ event.
The San Francisco String Trio performed in the atrium of the Genentech building on the UCSF Mission Bay Campus; and the Dohnányi serenade was the major work on the program, preceded by the single movement string trio (D. 471) by Franz Schubert. In her introductory remarks Levitz observed that the adjective “unfinished” applies to more than Schubert’s eighth symphony. Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalog lists a fragment for the beginning of an Andante sostenuto movement, but the Allegro on the program was his only completed movement.
In the spirit of my attention to composition that cares as much about sonorities as it does about notes, the string trio is particularly interesting collection of instruments. There is greater transparency by virtue of three voices that are distinct but of equal strength, which makes for a qualitative contrast with the more “violin-heavy” string quartet. Dohnányi’s serenade is thus a fascinating exploration of how those different sonorities can be summoned and mixed, all the more intriguing when we realize that he was only 25 when he composed it in 1902. Similarly, Schubert was only 19 when he began D. 471; and he was just beginning to find his way with chamber settings. Perhaps the work was left unfinished because he was not yet up to the challenge, but it is hard to find fault with the sonorities of the one movement he worked to completion.
UCSF is definitely doing the community a service by providing opportunities to hear seldom-performed works like these; but the atrium of a busy workplace like Genentech Hall is not the most conducive place for subtle sonorities. Fortunately, most of the events in the Chancellor’s Concert Series take place in auditorium settings (as was originally planned for this performance before a scheduling difficulty arose). Thus, it is generally the case that, through the good graces of this series of events, one does not confront the problem I recently encountered of trying to listen when it is difficult even to hear!