The Chamber Music Masters series at the SF Conservatory of Music featured one of the preeminent viola players in the world, the 60-year-old Kim Kashkashian above, in a ravishing concert with faculty and students last week. She not only plays with just about every major orchestra and chamber music festival in the world, but Kashkashian had a bizarre brush with wider fame earlier this year when she won a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for Kurtág & Ligeti: Music For Viola. According to a Fox News account:
"We know she is carrying Grammy-winning rapper Kanye West's baby, and that she even released an oh-so-thrilling debut single "Jam (Turn It Up)" - but Kim Kardashian won a Grammy of her own during the pre-telecast showdown on Sunday night?! A digital scroll of early winners played on a loop in the backstage area throughout the night, but one of the recipient's names "Kim Kashkashian" caused a serious amount of head-scratching from press and publicists passing by. "Wait, is that a spelling error?" chorused some, while others' jaws dropped to the floor as they pondered the unheard of "talents" exhibited by the reality star."
Kashkashian, not Kardashian, also spent a week at the Conservatory holding master classes and coaching students, and the results were on display in the first piece of the concert, Anton Webern's early (1905) single-movement Langsamer Satz for string quartet. The music sounded a bit like Mahler at his most lyrical and mystical, and the superb student performers were Anna Corcoran & Ji In Kim on violin, Yiwen Zhang on viola, and Minji Kang on cello above.
Kashkashian was then joined on piano by Conservatory professor, pianist (and occasional violist) Paul Hersh above, for Dmitri Shostakovich's final composition, a Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1975 as he was shuttling back and forth between sickbed and hospital. The long, three-movement sonata is one of the bleakest and most beautiful pieces Shostakovich ever wrote, and Kashkashian's performance was spellbinding if you happened to be in the mood for serious Russian sadness.
The second half of the program devoted to Brahms' sunny String Sextet from 1860 was a happy contrast, with Kashkashian playing second viola while joining Noemy Gagnon-Lafrenais and Bettina Mussumeli on violins, Laura Gaynon and Natlie Raney on cellos, and Kristin Zimmerman on first viola. Though the ensemble did not quite have the Gypsy rhythms in their cultural bloodlines that makes this Sextet so engaging, they still gave a remarkable performance, and reminded everyone why chamber music is best heard live in a small venue such as the Caroline Hume Concert Hall at the Conservatory. At $20, these Chamber Music Masters concerts are one of the great cultural bargains in the Bay Area.