Monday, April 07, 2014

Vivaldi and Mozart at the SFJAZZ Center

The new SFJAZZ Center has stepped into the breach for a few classical music organizations who have been exiled from the Veterans Building's Herbst Theatre while it undergoes earthquake retrofitting over the next three years. Though amplified music sounds superb at the Center, acoustic performances have been a problem since the Miner Auditorium is so dry, with hardly any reverberation. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra above has been playing around with "discreet" amplification at their SFJAZZ performances, but the results have been uneven to say the least.

Last Friday the original instruments ensemble performed Vivaldi's only surviving oratorio, the rousing and bloodthirsty Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernes barbarie, where Judith leads the Venetians in their fight against the Ottomans attacking Corfu. The soloists were all fine (above left to right Vivica Genaux, Diana Moore, conductor Nicholas McGegan, Cecile van de Sant, and Dominique Labelle), but there were disconcerting moments of weird amplification when a singer would turn their head and the sound would actually get louder accompanied by a metallic underglow that reminded me of the taste of diet sodas.

The real stars of the show were the chorus above and the dueling theorbos below played by David Taylor and Daniel Zuluaga.

My favorite moment of the evening was Judith's aria Veni, veni mi sequere fide where van Sant was accompanied not only by the two theorbos but by an instrument called a chalumeau, an early prototype of the clarinet that looked to be about half the size of a flute. It was amazing how rich the sound was from the tiny, obscure instrument and the playing by Eric Hoeprich was exquisite.

The next morning at the same location San Francisco Performances offered the finale of its four-concert Mozart series with the Alexander String Quartet and guest pianist Sarah Cahill playing the composer's two piano quartets, along with historical and musical commentary by Robert Greenberg (second from the right above), "music historian-in-residence." Greenberg's music appreciation meets Catskills standup schtick is not at all my cup of tea, but I may be in the minority. The hall was almost filled on a Saturday morning at 10AM, and the crowd was immensely appreciative.

The reason for attending was to hear Sarah Cahill playing classical repertory rather than her usual world premieres and new music. I was nervous for her because Mozart's music is deceptively tricky and I've heard plenty of great musicians who don't have a clue how to bring it to life. The worry was misplaced, however, because she proved to be a wonderful Mozartian, animating the music from the inside, and her quality of listening and sharing with her fellow players made for stirring, beautiful performances. Second violinist Frederick Lifsitz was the top dog string player for the Piano Quartet in G Minor while first violinist Zakarias Grafilo took over after intermission for the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.

Though a little dry, the sound was warm and resonant throughout the morning's performances and there wasn't a hint of amplification. I asked SF Performances president Ruth Felt how that came about. "It has something to do with the stage baffle being either in or out, I don't remember which one it is, but it seems to make all the difference for performers trying to listen to each other."

1 comment:

Axel Feldheim said...

Fascinating account of the Vivaldi oratorio, especially the chalumeau, which I'd never even heard of before. Good job making me regret missing this program!