Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hamelin and The Pacifica Quartet Play Ornstein

San Francisco Performances presented a chamber music concert by the Pacifica Quartet and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin at the SFJAZZ Center on Monday evening that was surprising and thrilling.

The concert started with Shostakovich's 7th String Quartet, which is a short, concentrated burst of strange, skittering energy that would ordinarily overshadow everything else on a program. The impassioned, expert performance was by (left to right above) Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson on violin, Brandon Vamos on cello, and Masumi Per Rostad on viola.

The quartet was then joined by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, in their first collaboration together, in Leo Ornstein's 1927 Quintet for Piano and Strings, which is a long (45-minute), ambitious, and what appears to be fiendishly difficult piece to play. As Hamelin explained on Sarah Cahill's Then and Now radio program last Sunday (click here), "Ornstein was one of the most instinctual composers I've ever encountered. He could very well dispense with accepted forms, like a sonata form or whatever, and still make it work. He could write one episode after another, but he knew how to proportion everything so that it would make sense." In the same interview, violinist Bernhardsson relates, "A lot of the transitions, you go through so many moods, the transitions actually are incredibly seamless. A lot of our rehearsing has just been figuring out the transitions because they happen so quickly and they go from such characteristic differences and are written very seamlessly which has really impressed me with this piece."

Monday evening's performance was the first in a planned tour of the U.S. and Europe playing the Ornstein quintet before making a recording, and most of the audience sat slack-jawed at the sheer virtuosity of the performers and the brilliance of the music. The first movement Allegro barbaro had so many notes for Hamelin the pianist that the pageturner beside him was advancing the score seemingly every fifteen seconds. He also seemed to act as the de facto leader of the ensemble, suddenly changing tempo to signal one of the "transitions." The soft, sinuous Andante lamentoso was a contemplative break for the audience preceding what sounded like Eastern European Gypsy tunes being fractured and passed back and forth in the final Allegro agitato, before the quintet ended gently and softly.

After intermission came the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major, which was played with precision and brilliance, but which sounded like they were still channeling Ornstein rather than the 19th Century Bohemian. It was still a major treat hearing violist Masumi Per Rostad (above right) playing the main theme of the Dumka movement with beautiful soulfulness.

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