For the Chamber Music Series recital given yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) selected four compositions, each with its own set of challenges and its own capacity for rewarding listening. The most challenging of these was probably Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 108 (seventh) string quartet in F-sharp minor. This is probably his shortest quartet, usually lasting less than a quarter of an hour; and its three movements are separated by attacca transitions. It is also cyclic, in the sense that the opening gestures (they barely constitute motifs, let alone themes) return during the third movement. However, while it is frequently perplexing in laying out its material, that final movement still begins with an unmistakably ferocious fugue, into which those retrospective references to the opening eventually intrude.
Yesterday’s performance was framed by the two SFS Grebaniers, Sharon on first violin and Michael on cello. Between them were situated Mariko Smiley on second violin and Gina Cooper on viola. Each of these four parts is given “equal time” in presenting and manipulating Shostakovich’s fragments. However, all this plays out against a bass line securely established by the cello work, while the pitch range is enclosed by the first violin part. Thus, while the substance may be framed through suggestion and ambiguity, there is a recognizable consistency to the “big picture.” The resulting impression is that, while Shostakovich may have been deliberately puzzling, he wanted the listener to recognize that he was being playful about it.
The other string quartet selection involved an entirely different approach. This was “Lacrymosa,” subtitled “Remembering Kevin,” which Terry Riley composed for the Kronos Quartet. The title refers to the fact that the music serves as a memorial to Kevin Freeman, who had been the partner of Kronos violist Hank Dutt. Despite the somber rhetoric, it was particularly satisfying to find four SFS string players making it a point to recognize that this was the year of Riley’s 80th birthday.
The music itself was as elegiac as it was brief (only about eight minutes). While it did not involve the sorts of elaborate polyrhythms that grew out of Riley’s work with tape music, it definitely reflected his interest in the jazz repertoire. Indeed, there is a sense that Riley wanted to suggest a trace of David Raksin’s song “Laura,” whose words refer to the memory of a beloved, who has now become “only a dream.” This seemed particularly appropriate for music written to be memorial without ever descending into the maudlin.
For this piece the quartet players were violinists Melissa Kleinbart and Smiley, violist Matthew Young, and cellist Amos Yang. They definitely made a convincing case that you do not have to be the Kronos Quartet to play Riley’s chamber music. They brought out all of the interleaving of voices that marked Riley’s rhetorical stance with impeccable clarity and introduced the “Laura” reference with just the right level of subtlety to leave the listener guessing as to whether or not the reference was intentional.
Kleinbart and Yang also played Robert Schumann’s Opus 110 (third) piano trio in G minor with Eric Zivian. Among his three piano trios, this is the one in which the composer seems to be wrestling the most with establishing and developing his thematic lexicon. He composed it in 1851, the same year in which he wrote his Opus 97 (“Rhenish”) symphony, performed at the beginning of this month by SFS. This was a time when Schumann was aware of problems with his mental condition; but, while Opus 97 was vigorously assertive, Opus 110 seems more aware of impending trauma. Particularly impressive this afternoon was the balance of the three performers, which made the poignant context for this music all the more penetrating.
Far more optimistic was the opening selection, the Opus 6 sextet in B-flat major by Ludwig Thuille scored for wind quintet and piano. Anyone wondering what sort of music Johannes Brahms would have composed for a wind ensemble would probably have their curiosity satisfied by the first two movements of this piece. Thuille clearly knew his Brahms very well and knew how the draw upon the master for his models. However, by the time he progressed to the Gavotte of the third movement, Thuille had not only assumed more confidence in his own voice but also was bold enough to inject more than a little wit into this approach to an “ancient” dance form. This then allowed him to go to town with a concluding 6/8 vivace that clearly did not need any models.
Pianist Marc Shapiro was joined by Tim Day on flute, Russ deLuna on oboe, Luis Baez on clarinet, Rob Weir on bassoon, and Robert Ward on horn for this afternoon’s performance. Their approach to the first two movements was engaging for its familiarity, and they pulled no punches in delivering the humor of the Gavotte. However, there was more than a little uncertainty in their establishing the 6/8 rhythm of the Finale. Fortunately, they had no trouble with the coda in which Thuille shifted to a duple meter for his rush to the finish line.