This afternoon’s Chamber Music Series recital at Davies Symphony Hall, featuring members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), offered up two chamber music monuments from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. The intermission was preceded by Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet, composed in F major and first performed in March of 1904 when he was finishing his studies with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatory. (Ravel had been expelled in 1900, but Fauré allowed him to remain as an auditor. Thus, the dedication was far from gratuitous.) Whatever the Conservatory may have thought about Ravel’s ability to write a fugue (the grounds for his expulsion), Fauré made the right judgment call; and Ravel’s quartet is now recognized as a major chamber music accomplishment in the early twentieth century.
The SFS performers (violinists Polina Sedukh and David Chernyavsky, violist Wayne Roden, and cellist David Goldblatt) clearly shared that judgment. They also performed with that acute sense of listening to each of other so necessary to command both the quartet’s rich harmonic language and the intricate interleaving of thematic material across the four instruments. However, a solid account of technical detail only goes as far as the rhetoric that expresses the dramatic urgency of this music, an overall journey that is always seeking out new territory while, at the same time, reflecting back on the lexical vocabulary emerging from each movement. This was an expressive interpretation that offered a unique point of view for every listener, regardless of how many performances and recordings may have already found a place in that listener’s memory.
The same can be said of the offering following the intermission, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 60 piano quartet in C minor, the last of the three works he composed for piano and string trio. For this performance visiting pianist Akimi Fukuhara (whose studies included a stint at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) was joined by violinist Sarn Oliver, violist Matthew Young, and cellist Sébastien Gingras. This was a case in which the rhetoric (which Brahms associated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s young Werther, who resolves his unrequited love through suicide) needs to be kept in check, lest it overwhelm the score’s musical virtues. This ensemble clearly recognized those virtues and wanted those of us on audience side to recognize them too.
Most important was the overall sense of balance. Fukuhara had a solid command of all of Brahms’ full-handed chord progressions; but she never allowed her dynamics to dominate the three string players. She may have had many of the central passages in the score; but she executed them with a sense of being “first among equals.” When it was time for another instrument to be first, she always found the right dynamic level to which to drop. The result was a compelling account in which the dramatic elements were never short-changed but never succumbed to excess.
The one disappointment came at the beginning of the program with “Hornworks” by Bruce Boughton. Scored for two descant horns, three horns in F, and tuba, “Hornworks” was written when Boughton was invited to compose music for the Web site of Patterson Hornworks (which makes both modern and period horns) when they moved in 2005 from Los Angeles to Las Cruces in New Mexico. (Fans of Lust in the Dust take note.) Boughton composed a theme with nine variations with each movement taking about the same amount of time (two minutes). The idea was that different movements would provide the setting for different Web pages. According to the notes in the program book by James M. Keller, the music is still being rolled out to the Web site; but it received its concert premiere in 2009.
Clearly, if the music is going to be performed in a concert setting, than the performance should be should be considered in that setting, rather than for its Web-based intentions. Under that premise, there was a disconcerting uniformity to the traversal through theme and variations. The performers, Robert Ward and Nicole Cash on descant, Jonathan Ring, Bruce Roberts, and Jessica Valeri as “chorus” horns, and visitor Peter Wahrhaftig on tuba, certainly executed the score with an admirable blend. Furthermore, the imaginative use of mutes offered some diversity to the sonorities but not enough to give the overall composition a sense of journey or provide much by way of grounds for expressive rhetoric. This was an imaginative choice of jazz chamber music, but it is probably the case that it is better suited on the Web pages for which it was intended.
Nevertheless, credit should go to the bow for this piece for showing the only Niners spirit of the afternoon, rendered by Ring with a banner and Ward and Valeri with caps!