Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, the new concert season of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) began with the first in a series of free “Classical Kick-Off Weekend” programs, all of which are organized around the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Last night’s recital was structured around a diverse selection of chamber music compositions presenting both composers in a variety of settings. Performers included four members of the faculty, three students, all scheduled to graduate at the end of the academic year, and one pre-college student.
As might be anticipated when activities are just beginning to get under way, there was noticeable variation in preparedness for performance. The high point of the evening came at the very end of the program with a presentation of Haydn’s Hoboken XV/27 piano trio in C major. Faculty violinist Bettina Mussumeli performed with two students, cellist James Jaffe and pianist Ning Zhou, both of whom are probably in their second year in the graduate chamber music program.
A recent article on my national site about the Beaux Arts Trio observed that Haydn’s piano trios cover almost the entirety of his professional life. The earliest were written in 1759, probably during Haydn’s first “full-time job” as Kapellmeister for Count Morzin at Dolní Lukavice. The latest were the three trios published as Opus 86 in 1797, the year before the composition of The Creation. Hoboken XV/27 is the first of those Opus 86 trios, all of which are in a major key.
Each of the three movements of this trio abounds with examples of Haydn’s wit at its most playful, whether it involves abrupt shifts in tonal center (in the first movement), gentle mocking of cadenza-like passages (in the second), or just a lightly romping theme with “more bounce to the ounce” (in the final movement). All three performers submitted to Haydn’s sense of humor willingly, perhaps even enthusiastically. The result was the most spirited performance of the evening, not only for the humor in the music but also for the many ways in which all three performers had attuned themselves to Haydn’s multitude of whims.
The most seriously dramatic work of the program, on the other hand, was Mozart’s K. 379 violin sonata. This is deceptively listed as a two-movement sonata in G major, an Allegro with an Adagio introduction followed by an Andantino cantabile theme with five variations. However, the Adagio is long enough to be a movement unto itself (complete with a repeated exposition); and the Allegro is in G minor. As has often been observed, Mozart tended to be at his most adventurous in minor keys; and G minor seems to have been a favored outlet for his expressiveness (perhaps because it fits so well with instruments in the string family).
Student Autumn Chodorowski clearly appreciated that this was a “non-standard” sonata. Mozart composed it in Vienna in 1781, probably shortly after his arrival in that city; so one might suspect that he wrote it with the intention of making a splash, even if only in more intimate salon settings. Chodorowski clearly caught this sense of spirit in the music, particularly in the bold gestures with which she approached the G minor section but also in how she rose to the variety of virtuoso demands arising in the variations of the final movement. She also exhibited the polite patience required of the violinist during the extended passages that Mozart wrote for solo piano, most likely to show of his own virtuosity.
Her accompanist was faculty pianist Mack McCray, who usually finds just the right rhetorical tone of voice to bring to Mozart’s music. In this context last night’s performance was disappointing. McCray was always there to support Chodorowski and was clearly always attentive to her pace and phrasing. However, there were lapses in his own playing that masked his usual appreciation of Mozart’s tendency to be a “show-off kid.”
Such weaknesses were even more evident in McCray’s solo performance of Haydn’s Hoboken XVI/27 in G major. This was composed in 1776 during his service at the Esterházy court, but it is possible that Haydn wrote it for his personal amusement. The music is playful, but in this case much of the play involves tweaking conventions of rhythm. There are thus many full-stop rests, often where they might not be expected, and sustained fermata holds. The effect is one of a steady overall flow with noticeable eddies of turbulence. Unfortunately, last night McCray never quite established a command over either the flow or the turbulence, resulting in an execution that too often seemed uncertain about the steps it was taking.
Such uncertainty also seemed to impede soprano Rebecca Plack’s approach to two songs by Haydn and two by Mozart. Plack is Professor of Music History at SFCM; and, through her introductory remarks to the audience, it was clear that she appreciated the context in which these songs were written. She also appreciated the risqué tone of the texts by Christian Felix Weiße, which may have led to both Haydn and Mozart choosing to set his poems. Still, she noted that when these songs were written, between 1781 and 1787, Weiße was about ten years out of fashion.
While Plack was clearly sympathetic to both the poet and the settings of his texts, her own delivery never quite caught the spirit that she evoked in her opening remarks. To some extent this was a matter of neither of the composers having a particularly strong commitment to art song. However, it also involves recognizing the rhetoric of ribaldry masquerading as innocent childlike verses and exploiting how the music abets the disguise, so to speak. Thus, while Plack’s deliveries were straightforward, they never quite established an appropriate dramatic premise. To some extent her accompanist Steven Bailey compensated through his keyboard technique, but the spirit was never quite there.
Ironically, there was far for spirit in the opening selection, Mozart’s twelve K. 265 variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman.” The pianist was Pre-College student Kelvin Jiang, and he offered a solid account that revealed the distinctive personality of each variation. Much of this could be attributed to his scrupulous control of dynamics, particularly when different dynamic levels were required for the different voices in Mozart’s counterpoint. Twelve was a relatively large number of variations for the eighteenth century; but Jiang seemed to know how to structure the full set in terms of a narrative arc, making for a refreshingly satisfying account of some very familiar music.