Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), pianist Menahem Pressler concluded the first of the four one-week residencies in the Chamber Music Masters series by performing Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann with SFCM faculty and students. Best known as the founder of the Beaux Arts Trio and the only member to remain with the group for its duration, Pressler has a long-standing and passionate interest in chamber music, which may explain why his Chamber Music Masters residencies are an annual event. He also has a reputation for unleashing his passions through an energetic rhetoric that never loses touch with the “letter of the law” as it appears on the score pages.
This season, however, may well have been distinguished by a performance rhetoric that many (myself included) do not generally associate with Pressler. Last night there seemed to be a heightened sense of nuance in his approach to repertoire, combined with a departure from the leadership role he tended to take with the Beaux Arts in favor of acting more as a conversant. This was evident as soon as he took the stage to perform Beethoven’s Opus 96 sonata in G major with Violin Faculty member Ian Swensen.
This was Beethoven’s last sonata for violin and piano. However, it was composed in 1812, a time when Beethoven was mature but still had many of his most inventive undertakings ahead of him. From the very beginning the listener is aware that Beethoven is freeing himself from bonds of convention. The “opening theme” of the first movement is more a fragmented motif than an actual theme; yet is still serves as the seed from which that entire movement grows. Similarly, the daring and imaginative approach to variations in the final movement definitely foreshadow even more ambitious pursuit of this form that would follow over the course of fifteen years.
What was most interesting in last night’s performance was the subdued approach taken by both pianist and violinist. Rather than stress each of the signs that this music was a portent of things to come, they simply allowed the logic of composition to unfold on its own intimate terms. The result had an almost cloying quality, seducing the listener to venture into new territory, rather than a triumphant declaration of discovery. This is not what most listeners expect of “Beethoven rhetoric;” but in last night’s execution by Pressler and Swensen, it made for a highly appealing listening experience.
That same rhetorical stance then transferred over to Schumann for a performance of the Opus 44 quintet in E-flat major. The string quartet performing with Pressler consisted of Viola Faculty member Jodi Levitz and three students, violinists Douglas Ku Won Kwon and Joshua Peters and cellist Natalie Raney. Here, again, there was a sense that the ensemble was holding back from vigorously unleashing the many imaginative turns that Schumann took in composing this quintet. The rhetoric was, again, more subdued, not so much in the interest of seducing the listener as in making sure that even the finest details of Schumann’s intricate construction would not be overlooked. For the most part this made for a highly effective reading, although I felt that the coda of the final movement, in which the opening theme of the first movement weaves its way into the elaborate counterpoint, could have given the conclusion of the composition a stronger sense of arrival.
Pianist Mack McCray, who co-directs the SFCM Chamber Music Program with Levitz, introduced the evening. He explained that each of this season’s four concerts would also feature a performance by a group of SFCM alumni playing the work of a California composer. Last night the composer was Henry Cowell; and his fourth (“United”) string quartet was performed by the Prometheus Quartet, consisting of violinists Joseph Maile (’12) and Eric Chin (’08), violist Pei-Ling Lin (’12), and cellist Jeremiah Shaw.
The composition’s title refers to the Cowell’s “attempt toward a more universal musical style” (his words), thus “uniting” European tradition with Asian and African traditions, as well as the emerging American rhetoric. Listening to the boldly assertive rhetoric of this music, I was reminded of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ pioneering book of structural anthropology The Savage Mind (La Pensée sauvage), which sought to demolish all pejorative connotations of words like “primitive” by demonstrating that every culture had its own profoundly cerebral dimension. Each of the five movements of Cowell’s quartets works from what first appear to be highly simple materials; but, in the midst of the repetition of those materials, Cowell weaves them into an intricate tapestry of rhythms and motifs. One is reminded of the impact of the pioneering ethnomusicological research of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, expanded to a far more global scope by Cowell’s many diverse interests.
Last night’s program began with Cowell’s quartet, thus leaving us at the end of the evening of a sense of how much things would change in the century following Schumann’s Opus 44.