The Arca Ensemble consists of pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi and three string players, violinist Alicia Yang, violist Caroline Lee, and cellist Robert Howard. Presumably they came together as a group to explore the piano quartet repertoire. This is a rich vein in the mine of chamber music that includes major works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms, not to mention the only piece of instrumental chamber music by Gustav Mahler.
However, because this is French Music Festival month in the Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, the major composer on the program was Gabriel Fauré, who composed two works in this genre, his Opus 15 in C minor in 1876 and his Opus 45 in G minor in 1886. Today’s concert featured Opus 15.
One cannot really call this a “youthful” work, since Fauré composed it in his early thirties. However, as is the case in much of Fauré’s chamber music, the Allegro movements pulsate with an energetic drive that usually reflects either playfulness or exuberance. The Adagio movement thus serves as an extended pause that provides a breather before the final burst of energy in the final movement. Arca caught this overall spirit of Opus 15 and sustained it through the work’s four movements, making the occasion a particularly refreshing “lunch break.”
That “refreshment” was preceded by a bit of adventure. Maurice Ravel did not compose very many chamber music pieces. However, between 1920 and 1922 he worked on a four-movement duo sonata for violin and cello, whose first three movements are in G minor, followed by a lively conclusion in C major. From a theoretical point of view, this may hold the record as the longest dominant (even if minor) to resolve into tonic; but the motivic material behind the melodic lines for both instruments shows a remarkable lack of any tonal center. Whether or not this sonata provided Ravel with an opportunity to try his own hand at those atonal practices that were occupying Arnold Schoenberg will probably remain a matter for speculation. Most important, however, is that this is a highly distinctive music, differing not only from much of what was being written at the time but also from most of Ravel’s own canon.
If the score itself is fraught with enigma, Yang and Howard found an approach to performance that endowed this music with a perfectly plausible rhetoric of discourse. Indeed, the spirits of the final movement are as lively as those that would follow in Fauré’s Opus 15. Perhaps Ravel recognized that, whatever Schoenberg was trying to do (or avoid doing) with tonal centers, the music would assume its logic of progression through relationships among the rhythmic patterns. If so, then one can identify a similar approach to organizing rhythmic patterns in Ravel’s duo sonata; and this may be why, as perplexing as the music may look on paper, Yang and Howard performed it as if it were a thoroughly natural approach to making music.
This made for a rather adventurous “lunch break” but also an opportunity to experience French music at its finest.