Monday, November 25, 2013

A Strauss and Mozart Weekend

By complete chance, I went to two concerts this weekend that focused on the music of Richard Strauss and Mozart, with a contemporary Iranian composer thrown into the mix to spice things up. Thursday evening at the SF Conservatory of Music they were presenting another Chamber Music Masters concert. The scheduled "Master," violinist Jorja Fleezanis, canceled at the last moment and her replacement was violinist Geoff Nuttall, who is known from his very successful St. Lawrence String Quartet, which Nuttall co-founded. The concert started with the string sextet that serves as an overture to Strauss's final opera, Capriccio, which is caviar for sophisticated audiences and an exquisite bore for most. I'm in the latter category, and the performance simply made me happy I was not going to have sit through a whole performance of the long, one-act opera about a Viennese Countess who has to decide between Words or Music. (The performers above are l-r Paul Hersh, Douglas Ku Won Kwon, Patricia Ryan, Natalie Raney, Jodi Levitz and Geoff Nuttall.)

This was followed by Conservatory alumni Sahba Aminkia's Deltangi-ha (Nostalgies), an autobiographical piece for piano trio about growing up in Iran and the nostalgia of an exile. The five movement piece had a detailed program, which Aminikia repeated onstage, telling us that the piano clusters were the missiles from the Iran-Iraq War and "the snow" was his first love.

Aminikia doesn't really need the explicit program because the interesting music speaks for itself, and sometimes it's better to let audiences come up with their own mental pictures. The recently formed Delphi Trio above (l-r Liana Berube, Jeffrey LaDeur, and Michelle Kwon) premiered the piece a couple of years ago, and they gave a wonderful, lively performance.

After intermission, there was a Viola Quintet by Mozart that was curiously unsatisfying. There's no one right way to play Mozart, but in my experience performers either make his music deadly dull or sparklingly alive, and it's a skill that seems to be innate. Geoff Nuttall, the La Salle Quartet Master, didn't seem to have that inner Mozartian sense, and the performance leaned towards the mannered and ponderous rather than the poetic. The piece stayed interesting mostly through the contributions of the two Conservatory students in the ensemble, Joshua Peters on violin and Laura Gaynon on cello. What one could make out from their musical lines was delightful and yes, Mozartian. (The performers above are l-r Laura Gaynon, Jodi Levitz, Geoff Nuttall, Joshua Peters, and Paul Hersh.)

At the San Francisco Symphony on Sunday afternoon, Semyon Bychkov (above right) conducted a dull, inert performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #24 with a technically perfect, emotionally robotic Till Fellner (above left) as the soloist. Particularly after hearing Jeremy Denk playing the Mozart Piano Concerto #25 a couple of weeks ago with the same orchestra, bringing out every ounce of feeling in the music, this felt like a serious letdown.

After intermission, we were assaulted by Richard Straus's final tone poem from 1915, An Alpine Symphony. It's a gargantuan, one-hour, uninterrupted piece for a huge orchestra about hiking up and down an Austrian Alp from sunrise to sunset with a wild, freak storm thrown into the many climaxes. How I'm feeling about Richard Strauss seems to depend on the decade and the performers and my mood. There is something peculiarly Austrian and curdled and overwrought about most of his music, yet it's also seductive, and at his best he can be overwhelming.

An Alpine Symphony has some of his worst and best music side by side, and in Sunday's SF Symphony performance under Bychkov, the best conquered all before it. At a concert Bychkov conducted here last year, there was the same bad old music/good new music dichotomy, where he slaughtered Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and led a soul-stirring Shostakovich Eleventh. Let's hope he brings on those latter skills for Britten's War Requiem this coming week.

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