Thursday, December 14, 2017

Enlightened Nepotism at SoundBox

The SF Symphony's wondrous nightclub experiment, SoundBox, was chiefly financed by an anonymous donor for three years to build new audiences, and it was uncertain whether the monthly winter and spring series would continue for a fourth year. Last weekend it returned, with a bang. The Bad News: The ticket price for general admission has gone up $10 to $45 and donation sponsorship opportunities for $200 to $1,000 will get you in the door before anyone else. The Good News: After a hiccup in its final show last season, SoundBox is back and brilliant as ever. This month's curator was the soon to retire Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and the theme of the wildly eclectic program was "Connections," which in this context meant family connections. At the start of the evening, SF Symphony Principal flute player Timothy Day's 28-year-old pianist son, Britton, joined MTT for a fun, high-spirited performance of Poulenc's 1918 Sonata for Piano Four Hands.

Britton was then joined by his father for Faure's 1898 Morceau de concours and Ibert's Spanish-inflected Entr’acte in a pair of charming performances.

Finishing the first, French section of the evening was the cellist Oliver Herbert, son of longtime principal timpanist David Herbert who decamped to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013. Oliver played a solo excerpt from Dutilleux's 1976 Trios Strophes sur le nom de SACHER, which was interesting enough it would have been good to hear the entire piece. This was followed by Debussy's marvelous, bouncy 1917 Cello Sonata in D Minor. Herbert was wonderful, though MTT sounded a little rusty accompanying him on the keyboard.

The second section of the concert was devoted to a five-movement suite of music by Kazakhstan doubra virtuoso and composer Karshyga Akhmedyarova (1946-2006). His daughter, Raushan Akhmedyarova (above), has been playing violin for the SF Symphony since 1991 and recently commmissioned a string quartet based on her father's music.

This weekend was the world premiere of an expanded chamber orchestra version of the suite, led by conductor Christian Reif who is a delightful presence at SoundBox, conducting one moment, accompanying on piano the next, and occasionally playing genial emcee. The doubra is a two-stringed variation on a zither that should be extremely limited, but in the hands of Karshyga Akhmedyarova, it's an extraordinarily versatile instrument. Click here for an example on YouTube and another example in a bizarre Kazakhstan auditorium can be found here.

The composer responsible for Sketches from Kazakhstan, Sam Post of Washington, D.C. (above), did a nice job expanding and coloring the music for orchestra.

The third part of the concert continued with familial powerhouses, starting with SF Symphony violinist Chunming Mo playing a pair of duets with her daughter Alina Kobialka. They started with Shostakovich's 1955 Präeludium from Five Pieces for 2 Violins and Piano with Christian Reif on piano. The performance was so good that once again I wished they were playing the whole piece.

Instead, they continued with an exciting, passionate traversal of Ligeti's 1950 Ballad and Dance. "That's going to be a hard act to follow," cellist Peter Wyrick (below, center) commented as he introduced the Wyrick Family Chamber Quintet.

Wyrick turned out to be a funny, charming speaker as he introduced his wife, SF Symphony violinist Amy Hiraga, his daughter Mayumi (with her back to the camera) on violin, "honorary family member" Nancy Ellis on viola, and "Herbert Oliver is stepping in on cello for our other daughter, who is, well, somewhere, who knows where?" he related in a "Father Knows Best" impression. The makeshift quintet then gave an exquisite performance of the Scherzo from Schubert's hour-long String Quintet in C major.

SF Symphony Principal Bassoon stepped to a small stage in the middle of the audience and gave a solo performance of a transcription of J.S. Bach's Prelude from Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, and everyone stopped breathing while waiting for the bassonist to take a breath himself.

For the finale, Stephen was joined by his son Greg who studied violin in his youth but veered into an electric guitar during his teens. Subsequently, he helped form the heavy death metal band Arkaik which has produced four albums (click here for a sample). The duo with Greg on guitar and Stephen on amplified bassoon with a track behind them didn't quite work because it was too quiet compared to the original. I wish they had managed to round up the whole band for a live number with Stephen Paulson improvising away on amplified bassoon. In any case, heavy death metal felt like a perfect way to end the opening of this fourth year of experimentation. As usual, the projections by Adam Larsen and lighting by Luke Kritzeck were an integral part of the evening's success. Looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

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