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Past meets present in a stimulating chamber music ‘masters’ recital at SFCM

Kim Kashkashian coaching a string quartet of SFCM students during a previous Chamber Music Masters visit
Kim Kashkashian coaching a string quartet of SFCM students during a previous Chamber Music Masters visit
by Carlin Ma

Violist Kim Kashkashian concluded her residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) last night with a public performance in her Chamber Music Masters recital. Following the usual format of these concerts, Kashkashian shared the stage with both faculty (violinist Ian Swensen) and students (violinists Douglas Ku Won Kwon and Joshua Peters, cellist Laura Gaynon, and pianist Sophie Zhang). The composers selected for her performances were Antonín Dvořák and Gabriel Fauré.

However, without in any way detracting from the virtues of these performers, I have to confess a particular personal interest in this season’s decision to include in each of the Chamber Music Masters concerts a performance by SFCM alumni playing the work of a California composer. Last night the alumni were three of the members of The Friction Quartet, violinists Kevin Rogers (’11) and Otis Harriel (’13) and cellist Doug Machiz (’12). (Violist Taija Warbelow is a soon-to-be alumna. She performed for Kashkashian during this past Tuesday’s Master Class, and my guess is that the other members of the quartet have also done so during Kashkashian’s previous visits.) The composer was Ian Dicke, whose “Unmanned” was commissioned by Friction and given its West Coast premiere at the end of January in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. Having attended that premiere, I was quite curious as to how the piece would hold up to a second listening after an interval of a little over a month.

I am happy to say that both composition and performance held up very well. As Harriel explained to the audience, the title refers to the dehumanization of warfare, particularly with the recent developments in drone technology; and the spirit of that technology suffuses the stage through the presence of two loudspeakers delivering the results of electronic real-time sampling and reprocessing. As a result of personal research experiences, I tend to be skeptical about the use of electronics but remain curious as to how they may be deployed in “live” settings. In spite of that skepticism, I was impressed with how Dicke could draw upon the latest technologies without allowing them to overwhelm the performers. Indeed, his approach was skillful enough to confuse the listener’s ability to distinguish performers from their sampled sounds.

I have to believe that this confusion was deliberate, perhaps Dicke’s way of suggesting that the “fog of war” had drifted from the sensory-overloaded chaos of the battlefield to the detached distortions of images on video monitors. That detachment was then underscored by the composition’s coda, during which the players left the stage one by one. This was not so much a nod to the “farewell” gestures in Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/45 symphony in F-sharp minor as a suggestion that the “live” performers were detaching themselves from the act of performance, just as drone operators are detached from face-to-face acts of combat. In the performance of this coda at Old First, the performers walked down from the altar and sat among the audience, which I found particularly chilling. This was not possible in the physical setting of the SFCM Concert Hall, but the rhetorical spirit of this conclusion still endured.

Fortunately, Dicke’s disquieting intensity was balanced by two far more upbeat compositions from the late nineteenth century. The evening began with Dvořák’s Opus 74 terzetto, scored for two violins (Peters and Kwon) and viola. This is delightful music, due, in part, to the composer’s skill in blending three upper-register voices without the listener ever feeling the absence of a bass line. However, it is also one of those rare opportunities to experience Dvořák’s capacity for wit as displayed in the concluding theme-and-variations movement. Perhaps Dvořák appreciated how Ludwig van Beethoven often used variations as a platform for exercising his own wit and decided he would try to do the same. Dvořák’s variations may have been fewer in number than those encountered in Beethoven scores, but there was no mistaking the light touch of his wit.

Kashkashian always seems to exude the pleasure she takes in performing with SFCM students. That overt joy certainly enhanced the wit of those variations. It also contributed to the spirited approach taken to the vigorous syncopations of the Scherzo movement and the almost parody-like sentimentality of the intervening Trio. (I first came to know this Scherzo through “The Leaves are Fading,” one of the finest pieces of choreography by Antony Tudor, whose keen ear for music also led him to the compositions of both Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg.)

Dvořák’s Opus 74 was particularly effective for its sense of intimacy. That intimacy was maintained by a relatively low-key approach to Fauré’s Opus 15 piano quartet in C minor. There is often an attempt to over-dramatize the use of C minor, perhaps through some distorted vision of Fauré channeling Beethoven. However, there was a delicacy to Zhang’s approach to the keyboard that set the tone for a more subdued rhetoric. This was a rhetoric of transparency in which the multiple voices of the piano passages are complemented by those of the string trio. The result was an abundance of minor-key expressiveness that did not have to resort to excessive agitation, an interpretation of Fauré with a satisfying account of the unique characteristics of his compositional voice.