San Francisco Symphony: Chamber Music

San Francisco Symphony

Chamber Music Series

Davies Symphony Hall

February 28, 2010

Mozart, Quartet in D minor

If you are a teenager on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a rarity in San Francisco this winter, there may be no better place to catch a quick cat-nap then when your parents are forcing you to enrich yourself at Davies Symphony Hall during the Mozart String Quartet in D minor. The lights had not been dimmed for more then 5 minutes when the teenagers in front of me were sacked out, precariously propped up against one another.

The playbill notes describe the first movement of the Quartet as conveying ‘general pathos’ and an ‘atmosphere of fatalism’ while the dense counterpoint, until the recapitulation, adds a ‘nervous edge’ until the ‘bitter end.’ A seemingly perfect piece for the angst ridden alienation of the lives of teenagers, but not at Davies Symphony Hall. Of course, I am no teenager and I have to confess that I did not quite appreciate the plummeting octave intervals or the later dense polyphonic minor-key forcefulness of the second movement as fully as I was hoping.

Although the talent of the string-players was world-class, the piece washed over me with out any deeper connection that I hope for from classical music other than to note some pretty melodies and a nice flourish of rhythmic plucking in the final movement that shook me from my classical music stupor.

Brahms Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and Strings, Opus 115

After the interval, the next group trotted out for a more rewarding performance of one of the most famous clarinet pieces. The full timbral effect of the clarinet plus strings was far more engaging and the lone wind instrument weaving amidst the strings was both beautiful and entrancing.

In the second movement, the interplay of the clarinet and first violin shared thematic duties adding a Gypsy-flavored flair which can be found in Brahms at times. I have often stated that I am not a fan of Brahms, but I think tastes change as you grow older. Although I still do not favor his vocal arrangements, I have a growing appreciation of his symphonic and chamber music efforts- though they still strike me as heavy-handed from time to time. But this was not the case with his Quintet in B minor.

The finale is a theme with five variations. The second is full of rhythmic displacement that I think is easy to appreciate for a modern audience accustomed to experimental rhythmic adventures frequently found in jazz and popular music. The fourth variation was written in a contrasting major key and leads beautifully to the final variation, a waltz before a coda which returns thematic material from the opening movement. Even the teenagers were able to pay attention. A serious piece, but a delightful performance, and well worth spending the afternoon indoors on a sunny day.

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