For as long as there has been an audiophile press, critics have proclaimed the importance of the “live reference.” Their bottom line message has been, how can music lovers adequately evaluate the qualities of fine audio equipment if they cannot compare the sound it reproduces with that of music performed live?
Of course, there is no “absolute” reference for live music. Each acoustic performance sounds different depending upon the energy and gifts of the artists, the quality of any instruments being played, and the acoustics of the performance space. The same holds true for live amplified music, where the skill of the sound engineer and the quality of the equipment and set-up add even more variables to the mix. But unless we hear enough live music, performed in different spaces, to enable us to develop criteria for how good well-performed music can sound in an ideal or near-ideal environment, we have far too little to go by when evaluating how successfully equipment reproduces recordings of live and studio events.
How fortunate we are, then, that Constantine Soo has invited three musicians of the San Francisco Symphony to share an hour of great chamber music excerpts with us. These musicians are not performing simply because this is a paying gig; they’re performing for the love of it.
When I wrote a story on Chamber Music Sundaes, a series of chamber music performances by San Francisco Symphony musicians that is now in its 33rd season in Berkeley, former SFS violinist Seth Mausner explained why chamber music is a very important creative outlet for him and his colleagues. “When you’re playing in the symphony,” he said, “you basically have to take orders from the conductor, so you have very little creative input. They tell you what to play and how to play it.
“When we play chamber music, on the other hand, we choose the music we want to play, and get together with friends or colleagues we would like to perform with. We musicians are excited to do this not only because we pick the repertoire and our colleagues, but also because the rehearsing of chamber music is a very democratic process. When we play chamber music, we work out the interpretation together, and collectively make the creative decisions regarding the performance.”
Soo is delighted to be able to host the three musicians. “I often see live performances at other shows, but they’re open door, which can prevent musicians from performing at their best,” he says. “So I decided to have a more formal, closed door performance where everyone is seated beforehand.”
The performance came about after Soo met cellist Jill Rachuy Brindel earlier this year at a Bay Area alumni gathering of fellow students from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Brindel had just performed with the San Francisco Symphony, and many of her fellow alumni, including Soo, were in the audience. Afterwards, when Soo proposed that she perform at CAS, she suggested that a chamber trio of violin, viola, and cello would work best.
“The Westin is the first hotel we’ve used for CAS that has a separate, large ballroom suited for acoustic jazz and chamber music,” says Soo. “We’ve asked ASC (Acoustic Sciences Corporation), makers of TubeTraps and other specialty acoustic products, to provide acoustic treatment behind the performers that can equalize the sound throughout the room.”
Today’s musicians are a none-too-shabby lot. Violinist David Chernyavsky, the youngest member of the ensemble, is a native of St. Petersburg. After completing his studies at Indiana University and the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, he joined SFS in 2009. His online bio at the symphony reveals that one of favorite things to do in the Bay Area is indoor skydiving. That’s what you do when you buy equipment online without audition.
Violist Victor Romasevich was born in Minsk, Belarus. In his youth, he studied with a member of the famed Borodin Quartet before continuing his training at the Moscow Conservatory and Juilliard. Winner of the Gina Bachauer Prize at the 1985 J.S. Bach International Competition, he joined SFS as Associate Principal Violist in 1990. Then, in 1992, he switched to the First Violin section. To keep things interesting, he sometimes foregoes both instruments to play keyboards in chamber concerts.
Jill Rachuy Brindel has played the cello in SFS since 1980, and in Trio Navarro for more than 15 years. Her studies at Indiana University and Chicago Musical College, an affiliate of Roosevelt University where show organizer Constantine Soo studied business administration, led to gigs as former Assistant Principal Cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Principal Cellist of the Mendocino Music Festival, and member of the Houston Symphony. Quite active in Chamber Music Sundaes, she also coaches cellists of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Let’s face it. It’s a challenge for both musicians and attendees alike to sit down in the middle of a busy audio show and play the slowest, quietest, and most vulnerable chamber music ever written. Nor can you expect audiophiles looking for a break from the fifth track of Diana Krall or Pink Floyd that they’ve heard in a day to settle into some twelve-tone Schoenberg or ultra-repetitive, sometimes depressive Philip Glass.
Hence, our trio has chosen select movements from four wonderful, eminently listenable works written between 1788 and 1902. You will undoubtedly know the names of some of the composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig von Beethoven (1770 – 1827), Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), and Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960). Those whom you don’t know you’ll likely not forget once you’ve heard their music.
Anyone asking the question, “Why Mozart?” need only listen, for their answer, to the first and final movements of his six-movement Divertimento in E flat Major, K. 563 (1788). As much as we’ve grown accustomed to hearing Mozart described as the perpetually irrepressible child who gushed over with youthful melody, the Divertimento’s first movement Allegro immediately identifies him as a mature composer capable of writing serious music whose charm can only be described as Viennese. The Divertimento’s final Allegro, which the musicians will also perform, caps a sublime trio that famed music critic Alfred Einstein regarded as “the most perfect and the finest that has ever manifested itself in this world.”
While Mozart’s mature Divertimento was written when he was 32, toward the end of his short life, Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3 (1797-98) was begun at age 27, when he still had more than half his life still ahead of him. (His Symphony No. 9, Op. 125, with its beloved “Ode to Joy,” was completed in 1824, when he was 54.) The C minor’s first two movements, Allegro con spirito and Allegro con espressione, present music far more dramatic than in Mozart’s Divertimento. As we listen, we can sense that Beethoven was poised to take music a major step forward in both weight and content. It’s not that his music is any more profound or inspiring than Mozart’s, but it is certainly the product of a god of a different order.
The opening Allegro of Taneyev’s String Trio in D major possesses a genteel graciousness that the world sorely needs more of. Later today, when you’re trying to listen to music in one of the exhibit rooms at the show, and discover the people behind you carrying on an animated conversation about anything other than the music at hand, imagine the Good Witch of the East waving her magic wand and enabling them to tap into their inner Taneyev.
After Taneyev completed the trio in 1880, when he was 24, he sent the score to his former teacher, Tchaikovsky, for feedback. Tchaikovsky responded by writing, on the last page of the score, “I have examined the entire work and am amazed at the composer’s skill.” Nonetheless, while the trio was played soon after being finished, its score was never published. Instead, it inexplicably lay un-played in the Tchaikovsky Museum near Moscow until it was unearthed and published in 1956, on the 100th anniversary of Taneyev’s birth.
Three movements from Dohnányi’s five-movement Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op. 10 – (1) Marcia: Allegro; (2) Romanza: Adagio no troppo, quasi andante; and (5) Rondo: Allegro vivace – close the concert. While the Serenade, written when Dohnányi was 25, introduces distinctive elements of Hungarian folk music into the concert, it is far more harmonically tame than the music of his younger contemporary, Béla Bartók, and offers no hints of the 12-tone revolution that was soon to change the face of 20th century classical music. The Serenade’s energetic Rondo should make for a perfect close, energizing us to return to the show with the sound of the “live reference” resounding in our heads.
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