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Old First Concerts provides a venue for the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts

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Last night the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church presented students and faculty from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) in a program entitled Stepping Out. This was a clever figurative reference to the performance taking place at a considerable distance from SOTA’s J. Eugene McAteer campus, located at 555 Portola Drive at the corner of O’Shaunassey Street. This move was bold but not unprecedented, since the Instrumental Music Department concert to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday was held in the spacious (and less remote) Castro Theatre.

Last night’s program was produced under the direction of Ava Soifer, who heads both the Piano Department and the Chamber Music Program. With its excellent acoustics, Old First is one of the best venues for chamber music in San Francisco; and, as Kathy Barr observed in her opening remarks, Old First Concerts has a tradition of providing a platform for emerging artists. She then suggested that those attending last night might be getting a first look at artists soon to be emerging.

The concert definitely had memorable moments. The student piano work involved both some ambitious choices of repertoire and an awareness of the need to put a personal stamp on the approach to performance. The program got off to an exciting start with a dynamite account of the first movement (Un poco allegro) from Samuel Barber’s Opus 20 four-movement suite Excursions. Barber was probably being a bit tongue-in-cheek with his use of “poco,” since the movement is an intense dynamo of tightly-controlled energy, often giving the impression that more events are taking place on different parts of the keyboard than two hands can manage. The student giving the performance understood the need for focus, and the result was stunning.

For original interpretation the most memorable student was probably the one who took on one of the most familiar pieces on the program, Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 53 (“Heroic”) polonaise in A-flat major. This student clearly knew that he was confronting a warhorse. He may even have assumed that every person sitting in the audience had his/her favorite recording. Nevertheless, he found his way to develop some unconventional approaches to both tempo and dynamics that endowed his execution with its own unique dramatic character. It was also interesting to see that, in a subsequent performance of two of the pieces from Max Bruch’s set of eight for clarinet, viola, and piano (Opus 83), he had a keen sense of how to balance his dynamics against those of the other two instruments.

Nevertheless, the chamber offerings tended to be the weaker side of the program. I did not find this entirely surprising. Even in following concerts from the Preparatory Division at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one soon becomes aware that, particularly where chamber music is involved, students have to learn to listen as part of the process of execution. In many respects the learning curve for listening has a slower ascent than that for execution, since the latter can be practiced in solitude for as much time as the student is willing to commit. Group work, on the other hand, will always be more limited; and recognizing that listening involves many more factors than just following the beat is a gradual process that requires intense commitment.

Still, opportunities for performance are important, even when students are deep in the thick of that process. After all, it is only in the presence of an audience that the very concept of performance makes sense. SOTA has taken a highly proactive stance towards performance, which has included tours to the other side of the country. Last night’s visit to Van Ness Avenue entailed less distance but still reinforced the significance of performance in SOTA’s educational agenda.

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