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The Farallon Quintet explores unfamiliar clarinet quintet repertoire

A portrain (artist unknown) of the eleven-year-old Meyerbeer, when he was a piano virtuoso but not yet a composer
from Wikipedia (public domain)

The Farallon Quintet is a clarinet quintet founded in 2012, bringing clarinetist Natalie Parker together with a string quartet consisting of violinists Dan Flanagan and Matthew Oshida, violist Elisabeth Prior, and cellist Jonah Kim. Their biographical statement claims that they can choose selections from 159 existing quintets, rather a far cry from the two normally associated with this combination of instruments, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581 in A major and Johannes Brahms Opus 115 in B minor. Furthermore, if 159 were not a large enough number, the ensemble has commissioned a new work by Durwynne Hsieh for this season and will also be performing a new piece by Jay Sydeman.

At today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”), Farallon performed two pieces that were probably encountered for the first time by just about everyone in the audience. One was “Souvenirs de Voyage,” composed by Bernard Hermann in 1967, which was followed by the outer movements of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1813 quintet in E-flat major. Each of these pieces exhibited its own characteristic oddities.

Hermann’s piece was a rather lengthy meditation in three extended movements, all taken at slow tempo. Both the thematic material and harmonies seemed to suggest an alternative universe in which Alfred Hitchcock had selected Brahms over Hermann to provide the score for one of his moodier films (Vertigo, for example, since these are San Francisco musicians). Note that this was definitely Hitchcock music, contrasting sharply with the work Hermann did on Citizen Kane, in which he had to channel (ironically enough) Meyerbeer for the opera scene.

Meyerbeer’s quintet, on the other hand, was about as distant as one could get from any narrative framework, cinematic or operatic. If anything, it reflected a keen awareness of what his contemporary Gioachino Rossini was doing when he was not composing opera. The concluding Rondo has the playful spirit of some of Rossini’s instrumental music. There may also have been influence from one of Meyerbeer’s fellow music students, Carl Maria von Weber, when it came to writing little virtuosic flourishes for the clarinet.

When compared with the works of Mozart and Brahms, these selections were definitely lightweight contributions to the repertoire; but they had enough intriguing quirks to satisfy the curious listener.