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San Francisco Symphony chamber musicians balance the familiar and the unfamiliar

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The major work on yesterday’s Chamber Music Series concert at Davies Symphony Hall, featuring members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 70 sextet in D minor, best known by the title “Souvenir de Florence” (memory of Florence). This was the only composition on the second half of the program, whose first half presented two seldom performed composers. One was the post-Tchaikovsky Russian composer Georgy Catoire; and the other was Michael Haydn, best known as Joseph’s younger brother and as one of the possible composers of the “Toy” symphony.

When Victoria Ehrlich introduced the Opus 70 at a Noontime Concerts™ recital at the end of this past October, she as much as suggested that a more appropriate title for the sextet would have been “Memories of a Homesick Russian.” The music was composed in the summer of 1890 at Nadezhda von Meck’s Italian villa, but Tchaikovsky’s rhetoric is indubitably Russian in each of the work’s four movements. Once we accept this premise, we can then recognize that Opus 70 is a shining example of how Tchaikovsky could summon up the richest of expressive gestures without having to fall back on the full force of a symphony orchestra.

This is one of those compositions that will reveal new discoveries to the attentive listener each time it is performed. At yesterday’s concert the violinists were Chen Zhao and David Chernyavsky, the violists were Jonathan Vinocour and Christina King, and the cellists were Amos Yang and Margaret Tait. Their approach to performance was ripe with such possibilities for discovery. In my case I was struck by how Tchaikovsky could avoid providing an explicit bass line, rather a trick when one realizes that he has two cellos at his disposal. However, the balanced sound from yesterday’s ensemble allowed one to appreciate what happens when the thick textures of melodic lines “elevate” the music above any need for a “continuo.” The result is a sonorous experience that could not come from any composer other than Tchaikovsky.

The Catoire selection was his only piano quartet, Opus 31 in A minor, composed in 1916 but not published until 1928. Most likely this was selected and prepared by violinist Victor Romasevich, who had previously introduced Catoire to Old First Concerts audiences with his Jupiter Chamber Players performing the Opus 23 string quartet in F-sharp minor (composed in 1913) in June of 2010. For this performance Romasevich was joined by Nancy Ellis on viola, Jill Brindel on cello, and Marilyn Thompson on piano.

In Catoire’s music, one encounters far less of that Russian rhetoric so characteristic of Tchaikovsky. He was a dozen years younger than Alexander Scriabin, and it does not take much to detect his awareness of Scriabin’s approach to composition. However, there is much about this piano quartet that would indicate awareness of the chamber music of Gabriel Fauré, whose two piano quartets were composed in 1876 (Opus 15 in C minor) and 1886 (Opus 45 in G minor). One almost gets the sense that Catoire was evoking the refined spirit of Parisian salon life without necessarily having ever had personal experience of that setting.

The program began with an E-flat major divertimento by Michael Haydn. Scored for viola (David Kim), cello (Yang), and bass (David Chandler), its focus on the lower register was certainly diverting. In many respects the piece was almost a duo sonata for viola and cello with the bass providing the continuo. From this point of view, there were several occasions when Chandler could have provided strong support for that bass line without upsetting the balance between viola and cello. Michael may not have been as inventive as his older brother; but, if this piece is representative, he certainly had a lively imagination. It was equally imaginative that the SFS musicians should decide to begin their program with “something completely different.”

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