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2014 San Francisco-Shanghai Chamber Music Festival presents its first concert

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The first of two public concerts held in conjunction with the 2014 San Francisco-Shanghai International Chamber Music Festival was held last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). This annual event, now in its fourth year, alternates between SFCM and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and the public concerts culminate a week of intensive master classes, rehearsals, and coaching sessions. The programs feature the efforts of both faculty and student composers and performers.

Last night’s program featured two world premieres, a string quartet by SFCM composer David Garner before the intermission and a string trio by Shanghai student Minzuo Lu immediately after the intermission. Garner’s quartet was performed by the Han Quartet, consisting of Shanghai faculty members: Weimin Zheng and Shuting Wu on violin, Nian Liu on viola, and Dandi Wang on cello. It was the composer’s second quartet, and it was a vigorous exercise in the adaptation of dissonance to conventional structures that date back to the origins of the string quartet itself. In the absence of the grammatical conventions of harmonic progression to establish structure, Garner relied heavily on a discourse based on the unfolding of rhythmic patterns.

The Han Quartet seemed to recognize and accept this synthetic approach to realizing traditional forms through alternative discourse techniques. Indeed, the overt smiles on Wu’s face suggested a joyous reaction to both Garner’s plan and how that plan was being realized. The slow movement even included an allusion to a Chinese folksong, so Wu’s overt reaction may also have involved encountering an old friend in a new guise. For those of us listening with Western ears, however, the joy came from an effort to emancipate dissonance from past centuries of tradition without shackling it to any of the excessively cerebral alternatives that occupied so many of the practitioners of twentieth-century modernism.

Lu’s trio was entitled “Recluse” with the subtitle “Verve of Chinese Calligraphy.” My guess is that there are philological connections between title and subtitle that are more evident in their original Chinese wording. It may even be that it is through those connections that the music rises above the level of mere abstraction. The performers were SFCM students Douglas Ku Won Kwon on violin, Yiwen Zhang on viola, and Natalie Raney on cello. They adeptly negotiated a dense fabric of close counterpoint in which sonority carried as much significance as thematic lines, but this was not music that lent itself to quick accessibility through a single listening experience. One can only hope that it will remain in repertoire after the composer has returned to her studies in Shanghai.

These world premieres were framed by two major works from the classical tradition. The program began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 478 piano quartet in G minor, with Shanghai students Yang Zhang and Yucheng Shi on violin and viola, respectively, joined by SFCM cello student Menglu Li. SFCM alumnus Jeffrey LaDeur had to replace the originally scheduled pianist on short notice, but the result was still an energetic account that introduced the Festival to its public audience in high spirits.

The evening concluded with the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 70 piano trios (“Ghost,” in the key of D major) performed by SFCM faculty members. Festival organizer Wei He took the violin part, joined by Bonnie Hampton on cello and Paul Hersh on piano. Hersh provided some introductory remarks dwelling on Beethoven’s prodigious capacity for invention with limited resources in this trio. He also had time to make note of the wittier side of Beethoven’s rhetoric, too often overlooked by those who prefer to remember the composer as a stern monument. That introduction well served the performance itself, enhancing awareness of all the features that can make listening to this music as exciting as performing it.

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