Sunday, November 20, 2011

Norman Fischer and Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 1

On a rainy Friday evening, with Turandot at the San Francisco Opera, a Brahms German Requiem at the San Francisco Symphony, and a famous Dutch recorder virtuoso at Herbst with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, I figured there would be about three people at the chamber music recital a couple of blocks away at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and that my friend Charlie and I would be two of them. Instead, the largest of the concert halls at the Conservatory was about three-quarters full.

(The photo above is of a San Francisco Opera logo that was tattooed into the arm of a pleasant middle-aged lady sitting in front of us.)

"Why are there so many people here?" I asked a Conservatory faculty member we keep bumping into at Conservatory concerts. "It's Norman Fischer!" he exclaimed, literally. "He's extended the whole role of cello playing in our time." I had never heard of the musician before (pictured above left with pianist Jannie Lo and violinist Noemy Gagnon-Lafrenais) but the exclamation turned out to be justified. He's an electric musician, who obviously thrills and excels at playing in small musical groups.

The San Francisco Conservatory started a Masters program in chamber music in 1985, building on a visionary program called Chamber Music West that started in the mid-1970s. (Click here for an unusually well-written press release from Joe Sargent about Norman Fischer and the history of the program.) One of the school's current programs involves inviting guest stars to come for a few weeks at a time to conduct master classes and play music with faculty and advanced students.

Both Lo and Gagnon-Lafrenais, pictured above in her beautiful concert gown, are students in the chamber music program, and they almost overpowered the Beethoven trio just trying to keep up with Fischer's deep, rich sound. It didn't matter as it was a lively performance and it was obvious that both performers were having the time of their lives playing with Fischer.

The second piece was a Duo for Violin and Cello from 1925 by the Jewish Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, a composer featured at a concert last month by Ensemble Parallele that also included a solo performance by Axel Strauss (above left). The music was dedicated to Leos Janacek, a gesture of respect from a minor modernist to a major genius who hadn't been widely discovered yet, and the four-movement piece was constantly interesting music with lots of folk elements.

Strauss held his own against the dynamic cellist and their interplay sounded almost improvisatory. It was in this performance that Fischer started stomping his foot down at certain moments as if he was at a fiddling hoe-down, and instead of being annoying the gesture was exciting.

The second half was the reason to choose this concert over all others this evening, a chance to hear a Schoenberg String Quartet played live. I read Thomas Pynchon's precocious genius first novel V. at an impressionable age in the 1960s and there was a detail from the first chapter that was memorable. The Whole Sick Crew, a group of wannabe artists in the 1950s in New York City, are described partying in this descriptive paragraph:
"The party itself, tonight, was divided in three parts. Fergus, and his date, and another couple had long retreated into the bedroom with a gallon of wine; locked the door; and let the Crew do what they could in the way of chaos to the rest of the place. The sink on which Stencil now sat would become Melvin's perch: he would play his guitar and there would be horahs and African fertility dances in the kitchen before midnight. The lights in the living room would go out one by one, Schoenberg's quartets (complete) would go on the record player/changer, and repeat, and repeat, while cigarette coals dotted the room like watchfires and the promiscuous Debby Sensay (e.g.) would be on the floor, caressed by Raoul, say, or Slab, while she ran her hand up the leg of another, sitting on the couch with her roommate--and on, in a kind of love feast or daisy chain; wine would spill, furniture would be broken; Fergus would awake briefly next morning, view the destruction and residual guests sprawled about the apartment; cuss them all out and go back to sleep."

The detail that got me excited at age 16 was not the intimation of orgiastic sex, though that was titillating, but the fact that they were having sex with background music supplied by the scary Austrian serial composer Schoenberg, via his severe string quartets (repeatedly). Now this sounded beyond cool.

Schoenberg's 1907 String Quartet #1 was one of his most ambitious works, stretching for about fifty minutes without pause in total concentrated frenzy. It's tonal, before he invented/codified twelve-tone music, but just barely. I own a recording that I've probably listened to twice in twenty years and probably turned off before the piece was through because it required too much concentration and sounded depressing.

With (left to right) Conservatory teacher Ian Swensen, violin, his student Joseph Maile, also on violin, and Pei-Ling Lin on viola, Norman Fischer led a performance that was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever heard. The quartet is dense, ambitious, successful, and bizarrely contemporary, and at least in this performance the fifty minutes stood outside of time. The entire ensemble was extraordinary, with a special shout-out to student Pei-Ling Lin on viola who sounded like a musical master on the order of Fischer himself.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I would have sworn it was Carmen at the opera too, but it was the second run of Turandot. Me, I was at Old First for Obrecht and Josquin, with Eoueoue or whatever the hell. I'm seeing the Brahms in about 90 minutes.

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa: Thanks so much for the correction. I'll change it in the text. Maybe both shows would be more interesting if they exchanged their old, sagging productions. Carmen goes go Hockney's Peking, and Principessa Turandot goes to Ponelle's Seville pretending to be a gypsy. Regie run amok.

AphotoAday said...

Hi Mike,
Your report on Mr. Fischer was so glowing and over-the-top that I thought I would try to see if there was any of his performances up on YouTube. I found a 45 minute lecture punctuated with him illustrating his points on his ax. Sounds like a great guy--the video is playing now as I type. Seems like a great guy. Animated and interesting. Way over my head, of course.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Mike, a switch like that would get me to Carmen!