Ensemble San Francisco (Rebecca Jackson, violin; Matt Young, viola; Jonah Kim, cello; Roman Fukshansky, clarinet; Christine McLeavey Payne, piano) made their debut Wednesday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Playing a concert of selected movements from the Romantic-era repertoire, they shuffled to form trios of different combinations of instruments. The short pieces and constantly shifting ensembles made for an exciting and dynamic concert. As a trade-off, it is hard to go very deep with different personnel and different composers every 5-10 minutes.
The Dohnanyi String Trio opened the program. String players tend to play best with other string players and the level coordination was one of the highest in this combo (violin-viola-cello). Young, newly a member of the San Francisco Symphony, played a gorgeous creamy viola solo in the second movement then broke into a sparky accompaniment figure as Jackson and Kim took over in an explosion of sound-- a moment of harmonious and collaborative chamber music that generated tremendous energy.
The Schumann pieces for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano were mellow and beautiful. A movement of the Brahms Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano showcased Fukshansky’s rich and artfully shaped clarinet sound. In the Bartok Contrasts, Jackson dispatched the gnarly cadenza with fierce spirit and played the scordatura-tuned violin with reckless abandon, channeling an Eastern European Gypsy.
Pianists in chamber music are always the busiest-- they have by far more notes than everyone and though they’re often accompanimental, they set the tone and the textures for the other instruments to blend with. McLeavey Payne set a beautiful backdrop with a graceful touch. In the Tchaikovsky A minor trio she took more of a leading role, somehow stirring up rumbling arpeggios while also playing gorgeous melodies in octaves.
Kim plays with tons of exuberant confidence. Practically everything he plays is loud and boomy and when he gets the leading melody he does butt-rolls side-to-side while his feet fly in the air. The entire group finally combined together in the the last piece for Libertango, in an arrangement by Kim featuring, of course, the cello on the main melody. The accompanimental texture was thick and covered up the melody but the energy level was soaring so high that it didn’t matter.
This collective of musicians possess an amazing amount of talent. It will be interesting to watch Ensemble SF’s chemistry develop as they continue to concertize. They are planning programs of Quartets and Quintets later in the season.