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SFCM concert season has a stunning start with virtuoso historical performance

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The Faculty Artist Series had the honor of launching the 2014–15 concert season of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The program, presented in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall, was prepared by harpsichordist Corey Jamason, joined by his co-director of the Baroque Ensemble, Elisabeth Reed performing on baroque cello. However, the “main attraction” of the evening was the appearance of two guest artists, both performing on baroque violin: Elizabeth Blumenstock, a leading figure in historically-informed performance in the Bay Area, and Catherine Mackintosh, founding concertmaster of the Academy of Ancient Music in London.

The resulting program was a dazzling study in the virtuosity of a violin duo over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the earlier century preceding the intermission and the later one following it. With the exception of one of the Opus 3 sonatas for two violins, published by Jean-Marie Leclair in 1730, all of the pieces performed were trio sonatas with Reed providing the third part and sharing continuo work with Jamason. It would probably be fair to say that the violin first came into its own during the Baroque period and that it firmly established itself through its capacity to support virtuoso technique. Thus, last night’s program could be taken as a study in how that reputation was established and maintained.

The Baroque period was also when instrumental music, in general, began to stand on its own, rather than only serving to support vocal music, both sacred and secular. Thus, the very concept of instrumental virtuosity may have emerged as an outgrowth of vocal virtuosity. More interesting, however, may be the extent to which the compositional toolbox of instrumental tropes can be traced back to vocal origins. Listening to the opening selection, a trio sonata by Dietrich Becker active during the second half of the seventeenth century, it was not difficult to think of one of the madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi being “sung” by a pair of violins. Little is known of Becker’s past, but he settled in Hamburg in 1662. While he may not have been aware of Monteverdi, chances are better that he was exposed to the music of Heinrich Schütz, whose secular madrigals showed the influences of his studies with Monteverdi as his teacher. In any event there were likely prevailing practices of making music through the singing of part songs that Becker probably knew and could well have repurposed them for his own expertise in playing the violin.

In other words the earliest works on last night’s program may well have originated through the activities of instrumentalists gathering to play together (without the presence of vocalists), what might be taken as a seventeenth-century spirit of “jamming.” As the “jamming” became more frequent and the “jammers” grew more experienced, some of them saw the value in taking the results of their efforts and documenting them as written music. That urge to write would be followed by the urge to publish, and publication would lead to subsequent acts of making music far beyond the influential sphere of the “originating jammers.”

In such a context that spirit of jamming probably flourished particularly well when two violinists were involved. They could take a thematic seed and pass it back and forth, each violinist trying to outdo the embellished interpretations of the other. In other words it might not be too far-fetched to say that the jazz practice of “trading fours” can be traced back to those seventeenth-century violinists. Indeed, listening to the agile bowing and fingering of Blumenstock and Mackintosh, one would not find such a supposition far-fetched at all. Following their exchanges easily evoked associations with the centuries-later exchanges between John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, two reed players whose capacity for working and reworking even the simplest of tunes was consistently and astonishingly prodigious.

Eventually, of course, the writing began to take precedence over the making. This was most evident in a Purcell trio sonata whose opening theme was subjected to two orders of augmentation. This unfolded into an entire movement in which the three participating voices were working in three time scales simultaneously while deftly exchanging which voice was in which time scale. Purcell probably had little difficulty hearing all of this in his head; but the work was being achieved with a pen, rather than an instrument, in hand.

Nevertheless, that spirit of jamming never loosened its grip entirely. The program concluded with the twelfth sonata in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 1 publication, a single-movement trio sonata based on the “Folia” theme. Vivaldi, of course, was never shy about creating virtuoso passages for the violin; but his treatment of the “Folia” amounted to trading fours with a vengeance. Blumenstock and Mackintosh threw themselves into playing this in such a way that it was hard to imagine that this music had not originated through improvisation. This was music-in-the-making at its finest, not only by virtue of the skill of the composer and the technique of the performers but also, and more importantly, through that dazzling sense of in-the-moment spontaneity through which music ceases to be marks and paper and emerges as a vibrantly organic activity.

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