Monday, October 19, 2015

The Pavel Haas Quartet at SFJAZZ

Last week the San Francisco Performances brought the young Pavel Haas Quartet to town for the fourth time in the last five years. (Pictured above are violinists Veronika jaruskova and Marek Ziebel, violist Pavel Nikl, and cellist Peter Jarusek.)

The title for the evening could have easily been Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Presents, because the grande dame of American chamber music of the 20th century commissioned two of the works, Prokofiev's 1930 String Quartet #1 and Bartok's 1934 String Quartet #5, both premiered at the Library of Congress concert hall which Coolidge somehow managed to get built via two acts of Congress early in the Depression. For a wonderful warts-and-all appreciation of Coolidge by Professor Cyrilla Barr, click here. Coolidge (1864-1953) was a Chicago daughter who married a Boston Brahmin doctor in the late 19th century, and she became a wealthy orphan and widow within the space of a year in 1915-16. The list of her accomplishments thereafter, including financial encouragement to the classical chamber music world of the 20th century, is a wonderful legacy.

I had no idea that Prokofiev even wrote a string quartet (there are two), which is strange because it is such an interesting piece of music. The quartet is infused with his slashing wit but also soulful, meditative passages, including a final movement Andante that is unexpectedly probing and serious. Following this with Beethoven's String Quartet in F minor, "Serioso" was brilliant, because the work sounded fully as modern in its own way as the Prokofiev.

The consensus opinion is that the two accomplished masters of the 20th century string quartet are Shostakovich and Bartok. I don't know either of their string quartet cycles well enough, but the masterful performance by the young Czechs of the Bartok Fifth made me hope they record both composers in their entirety. They are great musicians.

This was especially apparent because the SFJAZZ Center has sadly turned out to be a terrible place for non-amplified music. The problem is that the acoustics are as dry as the State of California. The ensemble worked with this reality, and made sure their unison attacks reverberated even in the absence of an architectural echo.

San Francisco Performances will be returning to the acoustically improved Herbst Theatre this Friday, October 30th, with a dual piano concert by British composer Thomas Ades and pianist Gloria Cheng. They will be playing Nancarrow, Ligeti, Ades, and Messiaen, so if you're interested in interesting, challenging contemporary music, you should check it out. The duo performed the program earlier in the year in Los Angeles, and LA Times music critic Mark Swed went a little bonkers with praise.

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