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The SFS Chamber Music Series offers two major works and a recent one

Arnold Schoenberg's "blue" self-portrait, painted in 1910
from the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna, in the Wikimedia OTRS system (ticket #2008012910012247, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Yesterday afternoon several musicians from the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gathered on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall for one of their Chamber Music Series concerts. Two different groups of musicians undertook two works of such significance in music history that even those (like myself) who make it a point to avoid the trivializing noun “masterpiece” have to admit that these compositions set a very high bar. Furthermore, that bar is set by high levels of not only grammatical ingenuity based on both honoring and stretching the foundations of counterpoint and harmony but also rhetorical expressiveness.

The first of those compositions was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581, his quintet for clarinet and string quartet. As a high school clarinetist, I have to confess that I really envied clarinetist Jerome Simas for ending his week with this piece after having begun it with the K. 498 clarinet trio, which he performed with his Left Coast Chamber Music colleagues on Monday night. In spite of the distance in catalog numbers, these are both mature works in which Mozart explored the expressiveness of the clarinet. K. 498 is the lighter piece, composed in 1786, while the more introspective K. 581 was composed in 1789. (As an additional point of reference, the K. 543 symphony in E-flat major, which has a substantial clarinet part, was composed in 1788.)

What the catalog number does suggest (correctly so) is that K. 581 is the most expressive of these three pieces. Furthermore, the rhetorical aspects of that expressiveness seem to emerge almost naturally from a contrapuntal discipline through which each of the four movements of the quintet is endowed with its own conversational setting. In that respect the variations form of the final movement also serves as a “summing up” of what has preceded, in which old relationships are revisited and new ones are added to the mix. There is such diversity in that mix that Mozart even provided two trios for his third (Menuetto) movement, the first one being taken only by the members of the string quartet.

For this performance the members of that quartet were Diane Nicholeris (first violin), John Chisholm (second violin), Christina King (viola), and Barbara Andres (cello). Because Mozart consistently composed this quintet as a “conversation among equals,” it was of critical importance that none of these performers ever let his/her part lapse into insignificance. Indeed, since we know that Mozart had a personal preference for the viola, it should be clear that his quintet does not provide grounds for any of those viola jokes. If there was any shortcoming to the performance, it would be that all those elements of Mozart’s rhetoric that make this such an intimate composition were put to the test by the cavernous space of Davies. This is music that really deserves a “chamber;” but, given the limitations of their physical setting, all five musicians were far more than admirable in doing justice to the spirit behind this music.

The second major work was performed “on the other side of the intermission” from K. 581. This was Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4 “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night), performed in its original string sextet version. If K. 581 is based on the rhetoric of an imagined conversation, then Schoenberg’s Opus 4 was derived from the conversational discourse of the poem by Richard Dehmel for which the sextet is named. This is a rather lengthy poem involving three voices, an observing narrator, responsible primarily for establishing the physical setting, a woman, who is the protagonist, and the man, who accompanies her.

Schoenberg would later declare that he had structured the sextet to give a line-by-line account of the poem. He provided the full text of the poem as a preface to the original edition of the score, but it was not included in the program book for the work’s premiere performance. James M. Keller’s notes for yesterday’s program book provided a summary, which tends to be the usual practice. However, this overlooked the most important organizational principle, which is that the overall structure follows the appearance of those voices in the poem: narrator-woman-narrator-man-narrator. At the highest level, this structural strategy reflects that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his poem “Der Erlkönig,” which Franz Schubert honored so effectively in his song setting.

In this respect the Decca recording made by Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and her colleagues is particularly valuable, since it divides the sextet across five tracks played without any breaks. That recording makes it clear that the sextet is structured into five episodes, each of which endows its associated voice with clearly defined character traits, climaxing with the narrator’s account of the actual “transformation of the night.” From this point of view, yesterday’s performance was equally attentive to the episodic nature of the music, often established by the shifts of interplay among the six musicians.

That interplay was reinforced by the physical layout. The two violinists (Nadya Tichman and Amy Hiraga) faced the two violists (Nancy Ellis and David Kim), while the two cellists (Peter Wyrick and Sébastien Gingras) provided the base of a “U” structure. More importantly, however, is that Schoenberg appears to have structured his score as a pair of trios. Thus, there was a clear sense that Gingras was the “violinist’s cello,” while Wyrick was “assigned” to the violists. This physical representation of Schoenberg’s approach to instrumentation enhanced the clarity of the overall experience, thus providing a compelling account of Dehmel’s poem strictly through instrumental resources without ever explicitly having to fall back on the text itself. It is easy to imagine that Schoenberg would have taken great satisfaction in this performance.

The program was introduced by the only contemporary composition, Nathaniel Stookey’s first piano trio. This piece was commissioned by the three sisters who form the Lee trio. Each of the movements amounts to a “portrait” (in Virgil Thomson’s sense of the word) of one of the sisters. The character of the movement is derived from the respective sister’s Chinese name and features that sister’s instrument.

This was certainly a clever approach to composition, even if the method could be traced back to Thomson. However, while brevity was of the essence in Thomson’s compositions, Stookey lacked a similar rhetorical gift. Indeed, it often seemed as if he was incapable of stating an idea without repeating it more times than were necessary. Such profligacy quickly became tiresome, although the performing trio (Yun Chu on violin, Margaret Tait on cello, and Marc Shapiro on piano) certainly made a noble effort to advance the pace of the score through all of those iterations. Still, it has to be admitted that preceding the likes of Mozart and Schoenberg is as tough an act as following them.

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