For pure pleasure, I love historical fiction -- novels that are set in some earlier time I and remind us of what life in that earlier period would have been like.
can't imagine life without books to read. When I was young, the Christmas gifts that meant the most to me were books. I would immediately go to my room, hardly emerging until I had read them all. I devoured all the basic sets of children's books, on young Americans (Washington, Lincoln, etc.), dogs, horses, knights, Sherlock Holmes, etc. Below are specific comments on recent books I have enjoyed.
I've enjoyed posting information during 2014 and meeting lots of you at concerts and will try to do even more in 2015 by adding some interviews with selected music makers in the Bay Area to provide a human dimension to the site. And, of course, I will look forward to sharing some wonderful musical evenings with you during 2015. Until then, Happy New Year!
Dec 9, 2014
String quartet events are a little scarce as we wind down the year and shift to Christmas carols and such like. One of our favorate groups that's resisting the banality of the season is the Friction Quartet, which appeared at the Center for New Music in San Francisco, where they performed a variety of original compositions. Not much holliday cheer, but lots of music to make you think about the nature and the future of quartet music. For a review, see: www.sfgate.com/music/article/Friction-Quartet-finds-the-potential-of-5940757.php
Nov 11, 2014
The Calder String Quartet presented the third and last session of its Bartok series at the SF JAZZ Center tonight. The series, that began in September, had some rough spots, but last night's performance didn't include any. The group performed Bartok quartets 5 and 6. Their performance of the 6th was particularly fine. In addition, they performed Peter Eotvos' Korrespondenz.
Oct 29, 2014
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) has announced a number of master classes this year, and the first of these free events was given for string quartets by the Telegraph Quartet took place last night, from 7:30 to 9:00pm in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall. In essence, three student groups performed. In each case, the group performed one movement. Then two or three members of the Telegraph Quartet joined them on-stage and gave them advice. It some cases it was very specific, but in most cases it was more generic advice on timing or when the music should swell or be more romantic. The experience, from the perspective of an audience member, is unusual. Initially, one is simply listening to a group of young, talented students play a piece. Then, one is listening while an experienced pro is suggesting how they would change the music to make it even more enjoyable. In many cases the group is asked to replay a few measures to demonstrate their understanding of what is being suggested. The instructors are usually speaking to the quartet, and aren't wired for sound, so it can sometimes be a bit hard to hear what is being said. On the other hand, while some members of the Telegraph confined themselves to verbal comments, others used a variety of body language to illustrate the revisions they felt were necessary.
Attending one or two of these master classes is an interesting experience, but its pretty esoteric, and not nearly the fun, to my mind, as attending an actual concert. Thus, moving from student performances to the teachers, I'm looking forward to the Telegraph String Quartet, which is performing at the SFCM this Thursday (Oct 30 at 8pm. $20) and on Friday at the Presidio Officers Club on Oct. 31 at 6:00pm (Presented by SFFCM, free.)
Oct 25, 2014
Last evening I attended the first program in the Cypress String Quartet's new seasion (they term their seasons a salon series) at the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley. The perfromance is scheduled to be repeated tonight in San Francisco and tomorrow afternoon in Palo Alto.
The Maybeck Studio is a large room in a house in Berkeley designed by the great arts and crafts architect, Bernard Maybeck. (For more information see www.maybeckstudio.org) The house and studio was originally created for the a piano teacher. The studio is two stories tall, lit by large leaded glass windows, and has excellent acustics. I estimate that it sits about 35 people, which limits the audience somewhat, but provides a beautifully intimate space. It works perfectly for the Cypress, which seems to have a close group of very committed followers that happily gather whenever the group chooses to perform.
Those who do follow the Cypress String Quartet know that they released the late Beethoven string quartets a few years ago. Now, clearly, they are working on the early and middle quartets. Each of their programs this year include one early and one middle period quartet. Last night's performance included Beethoven's G Major Op 18 No. 2 and the F-minor Op 95 (Serioso).
During the second half of the program, the Cypress was joined by Jonathan Vinocour, Principal Violist of the SF Symphony, and Jean-Michel Fonteneau, a member of the faculty of the SF Conservatory of Music, and a former member of the Ravel String Quartet. Together they performed Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. This composition, written in 1899, was Schoenberg's first notable composition. It was written as a love gift for Mathilde von Zemlinsky, the sister of Schoenberg's teacher and, later, his wife. Transfigured Night sets Richard Dehmel's love poem to music that is a romantic mix of Wagner and Brahms, with only a touch of the atonalism that would later become associated with Schoenberg and his radical approach to Modernism.
Oct 14, 2014
I just found out that the Berkeley Chamber Performances is presenting the Hausmann String Quartet at the Berkeley City Club at 8pm on October 21. The Hausmann quartet was formed in New Jersey in 2004, but is currently the string quartet in residence at San Diego State University. The program is a mix of Robert Schumann and a turn of the century composer, Louis Gruenberg and the contemporary composer, Kevin Puts. For those unfamiliar with the Berkeley City Club, it is one of architectural gems of the Bay Area, created by Julie Morgan. Between this performance and the upcoming performances of the Cypress Quartet at the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley (see Calendar), it seems those in the East Bay are about to enjoy a blending string quartets with the Bay Area's wonderful Arts & Crafts tradition. The Berkeley City Club includes a nice, if expensive restaurant, called Julie's. For more information on this event, see www.berekeleychamberperform.org
Oct 10, 2014
This evening I went to my first Presidio Session -- that's the name that the SF Friends of Chamber Music are using for their new series of free concerts at the Presidio Officer's Club in San Francisco. The Officer's Club is a refurbished, multi-use building on the Presidio grounds. The concert was held in a large room rather like a Spanish-style hotel lobby. Some sat in overstuffed chairs and others sat in folding chairs. The Alexander String Quartet played at one end, near the fireplace. It was all rather like being in the very large living room of some home. As you would expect, the Alexander was excellent and played selected movements from Mozart, Devork, Kern and Shostokovich. Just off the lobby was the new Traci Des Jardins Mexican restaurant, Arguello, which doesn't take reservations, but which does serve lots of interesting apetizers that you can sample before or after a concert. There is outdoors dining if the evening is mild. All-in-all a nice place to spend an early evening listening to music.
The next concert in the SFFCM's Presidio series will be on Oct 31 at 6pm. It will be presented by the Telegraph Quartet. The Officer's Club was packed for the first concert and the Telegraph is popular, so if I were going, I'd plan on getting there early to get a good seat.
Oct 6, 2014
The Calder Quartet performed the second of its three Bartok concerts last evening. As with the first concert, they were accompanied by a support performer, in this case by a Czech avant-garde violinist and singer, Iva Bittova. Unlike the first concert they played both Bartok quartets independent of their accompaniment. Thus, we got to hear Bartok's string quartets 2 and 3. Separately we heard a number of short pieces in which Ms. Bittova played and sang, or in which she sang to pieces played by the Calder. This complemented the evening very nicely -- it reminded me of Eastern Europe and of the Magyar or gypsy music the Bartok loved.
The core of the evening, however, at least for those of us who love the Bartok quartets, was the performance of quartets 2 and 3. Unlike the first evening, the Calder delivered a very impressive performance -- suggesting why they had received such good reviews in NYC last year. After the first concert, I wasn't really sure what to expect at this concert. Having really enjoyed the second concert, I am now looking forward to the third concert in November.
Sept 25, 2014
Last night I went to the SFJazz center to hear the Calder Quartet present the first of three concerts that are advertised as a presentation of the Bartok cycle. We were to hear Bartok quartets 1 and 4 last evening. In fact we heard 1, and then we heard a "version" of 4 with interspliced bits by the quartet and bass player, Christian McBride. I am all for improvisation -- and I liked a couple of other numbers that the quartet and McBride did together -- but I really object to the idea of modifying Bartok's String Quartet 4. This could have been handled so much better. The quartet could have played Bartok No. 4, and then played a separate "response" to the piece with McBride.
I took a friend with the intention of letting him hear the Bartok quartets. He got to hear quartet 1 but he didn't really get to hear 4, since he could hardly tell where Bartok let off and McBride and Calder interpretation began. It's as if the Calder didn't think that Bartok's quartet number 4 was good enough to stand on his own, and they needed -- and were qualified -- to "improve it."
For another view of this concert, see:
Sept 24, 2014
The New York Times ran a short story coupled with a video of the Kronos Quartet talking about quartet playing. It's worth a look. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/22/arts/music/kronos-quartet.html?_r=0
Every year Gramaphone magazine awards prizes for the best recordings of the year. Many regard this as a very prestigious award. This year's winner in the Chamber Music category was the Supraphon recording by the Pavel Haas Quartet, accompanied by Danjulo Ishizaka of Schubert's String Quintet, D956. String Quartet No 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’, D810. To read the original review in Gramaphone, select:
In addition to recognizing the Pavel Haas Quartet for the best Chamber Music recording, Gramaphone also gave an award for the best Young Artist in 2014 to a string quartet group, the Nightingale String quartet -- whose members are violinists Gunvor Sihm and Josefine Dalsgaard, viola player Marie Louise Broholt Jensen and cellist Louisa Schwab. Some of the members of the Nightingale Quartet were still students at the Royal Danish Academy of Music when they arranged to record the complete quartets of the Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) for Dacapo records. For more on this award, see: www.gramophone.co.uk/awards/2014/young-artist-of-the-year
Sept 21, 2014
Earlier, I suggested that SF Music Day might be thought of as the last music festival of the summer, and in a sense it was. But having attended, I am now more inclined to think of it as the first event of the 2014-15 season. The event took place at the SF Conservatory of Music on Saturday evening and all day on Sunday. The school setting and the free admission assured that there were a lot more young people than you usually see at a classic music performance in the Bay Area. SF Music Day was presented by the SF Friends of Chamber Music -- who arrange that the event would be free to all who wanted to come and enjoy chamber music. The music ranged from string quartets and jazz trios to individual performers. Some of it was classical and much of it was contemporary. On Sunday there was a bit of a street fair atmosphere about the event with food trucks on Oak Street, in front of the conservatory.
A number of groups that present chamber music in the Bay Area staffed booths to tell people about the programs they have planned for the 2014-2015 season. Thus, between enjoying the crowd and the music, you could gather brochures and learn about music events for the upcoming year. A nice way to get excited about what is to come this fall and next spring.
For those of us especially interested in string quartets, there were several interesting performances. The Del Sol String Quartet, for example, joined with Stephen Kent -- who plays the didjeridu, an Australian aboriginal instrument which resumbles a long wooden tube -- to perform a Peter Sculthorpe string quartet. The Friction Quartet played one of John Adams' string quartets, the Ariel Ensemble played Schubert and Dvorak, and the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco (a string quartet) played some Shostakovich. Many of the attendees were particularly eager to hear the Telegraph Quartet, the foursome who just won the Fischoff Competiton Grand Prize, and who have just been named the SF Conservatory's alumni quartet for the 2014-15 year, and the Telegraph did not disapoint. They played Mendelssohn's Op. 44, No. 1, and a quartet by Leon Kirchner (a program they will be repeating as part of the SFCM chamber music program, on October 30th. See the calendar.) A nice way to start the fall season. Now I just have to enter the new string quartet events I learned about into the calendar for 2014 and 2015.
Sept 2, 2014
In the Spring the SF Friends of Chamber Music (SFFCM) works with the Legion of Honor to present a series of chamber music events at the museum. This fall they are going to work with the Presidio Trust to present a series of Friday concerts (6-8 pm) at the Officers' Club in the Presidio (50 Moraga Ave., Golden Gate Recreation Area). To kick all this off, SFFCM has arranged a kind of mini-festival at the Officers' Club on Oct 4 and 5 (Sat and Sun) that run all day. There will be two string quartets playing at 11am and at 1pm on Sunday Oct. 5. This will be followed by Friday events on Oct. 10 (The Alexander String Quartet), Oct 31 (The Telegraph Quartet), and on Dec. 12th (the Del Sol String Quartet). Of course there will be a lot of great, non-string quartet music in between.
For those who have missed it, The Presidio Officers’ Club is now the home of Arguello, a restaurant run by the award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins, that features Mexican food and drink, so it sounds as if one could easily combine a concert and a meal. The SFFCM is offering a mix of groups and music, from string quartets to jazz trios. For the complete program, please check: We have listed the string quartet events from the new program in the Fall Calendar. The first begins on October 10th and features the Alexander String Quartet. For more on the Officers' Club and Arquello, see: insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/2014/05/21/historic-presidio-officers-club-to-reopen-with-transformation-and-a-new-traci-des-jardins-restaurant-arguello/
August 28, 2014
I just noticed that the SFJazz Center has scheduled the Calder Quartet for three concerts -- Sept 24, Oct 5, and Nov 11 -- where they will play the six Bartok quartets -- the cycle that got such great reviews when they presented it at the Met in NYC last year. For those interested in Bartok, and as a counterpoint to the Tackas performance we heard in the Spring, this will be a rare treat. For information, see www.sfjazz.org/events/2014-15/sep24/calder-quartet
August 27, 2014
The SF Conservatory of Music has just published its 2014-15 Season Calendar, which is available here: flipflashpages.uniflip.com/3/36086/336108/pub/html5.html The effect of the SFCM's effort to invigorate its string quartet program -- and specifically its establishment of a professional residency (for Pacifica Quartet) and an alumni residency (for the Telegraph Quartet) clearly shows in their offerings. What I especially look forward to is the fact that they are allowing the public to attend selected Master Classes, where one will be able to hear a resident quartet work with a student quartet in a learning session. Most concerts are free. Those that require tickets cost $20 for general admission, making these concerts some of the best buys in the Bay Area. I have already listed the fall concerts on the 2014 and the 2015 calendars. The SFCM's new season represents a major increase in the string quartet listening opportunities available to listeners in the Bay Area. All this and the SFFCM/SFCM Music Days besides! (see below)
August 24, 2014
The SF Friends of Chamber Music and the SF Conservatory of Music just announced the program for SF Music Days that are to be held on Sept. 20th and 21st. Several string quartets are mixed in among many other bits of chamber music -- a real feast to welcome the fall. For more information, visit
And speaking of ending the summer, I spent yesterday evening at the Hall Winery in Napa listening to one of the last concerts in the Napa Valley Chamber Music Festival -- a very pleasant way to spend a sunny day with friends: great food at Bouchon, and then an evening of music. A quartet made up of some of the festival players performed a very pleasant version of Haydn Op 20, No. 5 in F minor. A different group played Leonard Bernstein's Piano Trio, which is very nice, and made one wish that Bernstein had tried his hand at a string quartet. Right after the concert we were hungry, so we went up the Napa highway a bit to Gott's, a drive-in. It was a balmy night and we sat outside at a picnic table and enjoyed chicken sandwiches and soft drinks. We were amused to see the evenings' performers arrive a few minutes later, still in white tuxes and evening gowns, and grab another picnic table. After our snack, we drove down the Napa highway and back to San Francisco. As it turned out, we drove right past the epicenter of the earthquake -- just South of the city of Napa -- that occured at 3am the next morning. Luckily we drove past the spot at 10:30pm and were safely in our bed in San Francisco when the quake occured.
August 11, 2014
Imagine a Venn diagram: two circles that partially overlap, creating three spaces. Let one of the circles represent string quartets groups and let the second circle represent string quartet compositions. In the center, where the two circles overlap we have string quartet groups that play string quartet compositions.
In a second space, within the circle that represents string quartet compositions but outside the circle that represents string quartet groups, we have string quartet compositions played by non-string quartets. A good example is a new CD I've been enjoying -- the Late Beethoven Quartets played by the Camerata Nordica, a Swedish a string orchestra directed by Terje Tonnesen. Apparently this approach was first attempted by Gustav Mahler. Mahler argued that it was the best way to present a string quartet in a symphony hall. “Chamber music, “ Mahler argued, “is inherently composed for smaller rooms…. If chamber music is transferred to the concert hall, this intimacy is already lost. But other things vanish as well. In a large hall the four parts become lost, they no longer speak to the listener with the power that the composer intended them to have. I give them this power by reinforcing them…” Apparently Mahler’s experiment wasn’t very well received in 1898 and he discontinued his proposed series. Bernstein repeated the experiment with the Viena Philharmonica in 1979 and 1992, when he recorded Beethoven Ops. 131 and 135 which was released on a CD in 1992. The Swedish conductor Terje Tonnesen, however, has produced a three disc set with quartets 12-16 (Ops 127, 130, 131, 132 and 135 -- with the Grosse Fuge played as the conclusion of 130).
This album is hardly going to replace your favorite string quartet group playing the late quartets, but it represents a fresh way of hearing the Beethoven quartets and is quite enjoyable in its own way.
Next consider the third segment of our Venn diagram: The segment of the circle that represents string quartet groups playing non-string quartet compositions. This past Sunday I drove to Rancho Nicasio, a popular restaurant in the small village of Nicasio, in West Marin, to sit in the backyard, eat BBQed Beef and Chicken at picnic tables, and listen to the Kronos Quartet. They played music by Michael Daugherty (Elvis Everywhere), Ramond Scott (Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals), Kevin Volans (White Man Sleeps), and Charles Mingus (Children’s Hour of Dream), among others. Their encore was a lively number by Jelly Roll Morton.
Kronos solved the problem of how to present intimate music to a lawn of concert goers by using amplification. The speaker sets that were piled on either side of Kronos reminded one of a rock group. Once again, I wouldn’t want to permanently abandon string quartet compositions for popular songs and jazz, but an afternoon in the sun, listening to jazzy music played by a string quartet group, made for a very pleasant summer afternoon – especially after all the foggy days we’ve been having in San Francisco.
Kronos has been traveling a lot to celebrate its 40th Anniversary. They have been on the East Coast or in Europe most of the summer, and leave almost immediately for concerts in Scotland, Italy, Finland and Greece. This appearance at Nicasso was their only local appearance this summer, and it kicks off their 41st year at a place they have appeared several times before. Those of us spread out on the lawn certainly appreciated it.
Meanwhile, I still haven’t heard Kronos perform the new Philip Glass String Quartet no. 6 that was especially written for them – I guess I will simply have to wait a little longer, until Kronos decides to get back inside both circles again.
August 7, 2014
Having enjoyed a couple of string quartets at the Music@Menlo festival, south of San Francisco, I shifted direction and spent Wednesday evening in Napa Valley, attending my first Music in the Vineyards concert. The evening featured the Pacifica Quartet playing two Beethoven quartets (B flat major, Op 18 No 6 and the E minor, Op 59 No 2) and the third quartet by the contemporary Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke. All were excellent, but it was the Schnittke that really showed off the power and dynamic control of the Pacifica. Given the quotations in Schnittke's 3rd from both Beethoven and Shostakovich, I might have prefered to have one Beethoven and one Shostakovich quartet to box the Schnittke -- but what we got was very fine. The concert took place at Beringer Vineyards, and we enjoyed a long pleasant intermission, outdoors, with an excellent local wine. Altogether, it was an awfully pleasant way to spend a warm summer evening. San Francisicans are lucky to have both of these summer festivals within an easy drive.
Incidently, Schnittke's 3rd string quartet is available on a recent CD by the Pacifica Quartet -- The Soviet Experience, Volume IV (which includes Shostakovich quartets 13, 14, and 15, as well at the Schnittke 3rd). This CD is part of the Pacifica's well received project to record the complete Shostakovich quartet cycle.
The Pacifica String Quartet was formed in southern California in 1994 and rapidly became celebrated both for its series of string quartets, including their Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Shostokovich cycles, and for championing music by contemporary composers, like Alfred Schnittke. The Pacifica have been the resident quartet at the Metropolitan Museum, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois. In 2009 they won a Grammy for the best chamber music performance of the year. In 2012 the Pacifica became the resident string quartet at the Music School of Indiana University, where they all teach. In the fall of 2014 they are scheduled to begin a residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as part of that institutions new string quartet program, so, hopefully, we should be hearing more of them in the Bay Area in the near future.
July 24, 2014
The summer music festival season has begun in the Bay Area, and I began my participation by attending a concert at the Music@Menlo Festival last evening. It all started with dinner at a curbside table at a bistro in Menlo Park and then a short drive to the nearby Menlo school where we listened to the Escher Quartet play all four Zemlinsky string quartets in the course of a long summer evening.
Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was one of the key figures in the music world of Vienna at the end of the Nineteenth Century. He was a mentor of Schoenberg (and eventually his brother-in-law after Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister), the teacher of Alma Mahler, and a good friend of Gustav Mahler. Like all of those in the intellectual hothouse that was Fin de siècle Vienna, he explored late romanticism and early modernism. (One commentator remarked that, as Mahler had never written a string quartet, if you wanted some idea of what he might have written if he had, you should listen to Zemlinsky's quartets.) Zemlinsky's impressive career ended poorly. Forced to flee Europe, to avoid Nazi persecution, he ended up in the United States where he died poor and unappreciated.
Luckily for us, the LaSalle String Quartet, formed in New York soon after World War II, specialized not only in Viennese modern composers, like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but also worked to revive composers whose careers the Nazi's had sought to destroy. For awhile, the LaSalle recordings (1977, 1981) were the definitive Zemlinsky string quartet recordings -- and perhaps they still are -- but recently other groups have joined in the effort to reestablish Zemlinsky's reputation. Among them, the Escher Quartet has established a special place.
The Escher String Quartet was founded in 2005 in New York and was initially championed by the Emerson String Quartet. The Escher had bearly begun when both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman each invited the Eschers to be the quartet-in-residence at their respective summer festivals. Since then the honors have continued to accumulate. A couple of years ago the group released a CD of the last two Zemlinsky quartets, getting rave reviews at the time. This year they have released a second CD with the first two Zemlinsky quartets and have now established themselves as the leading contemporary interpreter of Zemlinsky's quartets. For a review of their latest CD release of Zemlinsky, check here: www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/12/zemlinsky-string-quartets-1-2-review-escher-quartet
Earlier this year we attended the Takacs String Quartet performance of the complete Bartok cycle in the course of two evenings. That was a thrill, because the Takacs is famous for its interpretation of Bartok, and it was wonderful to get to hear all 6 quartets in the order written and to follow the evolution of Bartok's approach to the string quartet. The Escher String Quartet is well on its way to establishing a similar relationship with the Zemlinsky quartets, and thus hearing them perform all 4 quartets in order was a rare pleasure.
The Escher concert was neither the first nor the last of the quartets being presented this summer at the Music@Menlo Festival. The Danish Quartet will be playing Beethoven this Friday, for example. Moreover, other concerts are soon to begin in Napa, as part of the Music in the Vineyards Festival, where the Escher will again be performing. All in all, those of us in the Bay Area are just beginning to enjoy what promises to be a musical summer.
July 1, 2014
I just returned from a wonderful concert given by the Del Sol String Quartet. The concert was organized to celebrate the release of the Del Sol's new CD: Robert Erickson: Complete String Quartets.
Robert Erickson was born in Michigan in 1917. He wrote his first book, The Structure of Music, in 1951 and moved to San Francisco in 1953 where he tought at SF State and then at the SF Conservatory of Music, where he headed the composition department. He was one of the first composers to explore the use of recorded music in compositons. In 1966 he moved to San Diego to help create the music department at UCSD. He died in 1997. The Del Sol played some of Erickson's music and then went on to play "Midnight Sun" by Robert Honstein (2013), "On a Wire" (2011) by Mason Bates, and then "On High Hills"(String Quartet 14, 1998) and "A Land Singing (String Quartet 18, 2010), both by the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe.
As an added bonus, the concert took place in the home and studio of Clive McCarthy and Dr. Tricia Bell which has to be one of the best settings for contempory music in San Francisco. McCarthy and Bell's home is in a former warehouse and the central area is large and at least two stories high, with excellent acustics. Mr. McCarthy creates "dynamic paintings" which are displayed on computer screens on the walls of his home. Each "painting" evolves and changes as you watch them -- a fascinating and beautiful new artform. For more about the paintings, see fourteenthstreetstudio.com and for information about the McCarthy-Bell residence, see: www.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/greathomesanddestinations/a-san-francisco-couple-domesticates-a-former-warehouse.html?_r=0
As I sat listening to this performance, I mused about how string quartets continue to play their historic role -- they are introducing people to new music. When Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wrote quartets, the printed texts were circulated throughout Europe so that groups could acquire and play them and thus learn about the latest music being written in Vienna. In that era, sans recordings or public performances, string quartets served as the best way that those interested in the latest music could arrange to hear it. In a sense, it's the same today. How many listeners know about today's composers who work in the classic forms? If one is lucky, the SF Opera puts on one modern opera every second or third year. Similarly the SF Symphony plays music from a contemporary composer once or twice a year, although, as a rule, the "contemporary" composer's music usually isn't really that recent or that daring. On the other hand, several string quartets in the Bay Area perform compositions by modern or contempory composers every month. Some, like Del Sol or the Kronos Quartet have entire performances built around contemporary composers. Many other local quartets include at least one new piece in every performance.
One of the reasons string quartet concerts are so exciting today is exactly because they are almost the only way most listeners have of learning about new music being written by this generation's composers. I'd be lying to say I like all of the modern compositions I hear -- but then I don't really get that excited about all of Haydn's string quartets either. But on an evening like tonight, when a quartet like the Del Sol packs a program with interesting new music, and plays it really well, it makes for a really exciting experience.
June 28, 2014
Someone is generating some nice PR for the Cypress String Quartet. This months issue of The Strand magazine (July 2014) has a nice article on chamber music groups and soloists that premier new works: "From Pen to Premiere." San Francisco's Cypress Quartet, with its Call & Response program, is prominently featured in the article. And Strings magazine (Aug 2014) has an article by Tom Stone -- "Walking the Line Between Elegance & Gruffness" in which he talks about playing his 1733 Bergonzi violin.
First place at this year's Premio Paolo Borciani Competition in Reggio Emilia, Italy, went to a young Hungarian quartet, the Kelemen Quartet. The quartet was founded in Budapest in 2010. The Mucha Quartet, from Slovakia, received second prize and the French quartet, the Varese, came in third.
June 3, 2014
The Telegraph Quartet, which includes the SF Conservatory alumni Eric Chin ’08, violin, Joseph Maile ’12, violin, and Pei-Ling Lin ’12, viola, along with cellist Jeremiah Shaw, won the Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the Senior String Division at the 2014 Fischoff Competition, held from May 9-11 in South Bend, Indiana. Telegraph bested 48 ensembles from around the world to win the country’s largest and, arguably, most prestigious chamber music contest. They receive $11,000 in prize money and will perform both in a winners tour of the Midwestern U.S. this fall and at Italy’s Emilia Romagna Festival in 2015. More to the point for those of us in the Bay Area, the SF Conservatory of Music has announced that the Telegraph Quartet will be its 2015 junior string quartet in residence this coming year! (The senior quartet is to be the Pacifica Quartet.)
May 21, 2014
The International Chamber Music Competition in Osaka, Japan, just concluded. The winner of Section 1 -- the string quartet portion of the contest -- was the Arcadia Quartet from Romania. Their winning performance was Beethoven's Op. 131. Second place went to the UK-based Cavaleri Quartet, while third place went to a US group, the Wasmuth Quartet.
May 20, 2014
Both the Menlo Park (July) and the Napa Valley (Aug.) summer chamber music festivals have announced their programs for the summer. Now is the time to subscribe for tickets for these events. Both are offering some interesting quartets by some very good string quartets. Check under Impresarios for information about both festivals. Check the Calendar for information about the concerts that are scheduled. Check under Visiting Quartets for information about the players.
May 4, 2014
Another pleasant weekend for string quartet aficionados. First, on Friday evening the Dover String Quartet performed at the Morrison Chamber Music Center at San Francisco State. I got to listen to this group play several times in the course of winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition this past summer, so I already knew they were a very young and very talented group. At SF State they performed Mendelssohn's E minor, Barber's B minor and Shostakovich's No. 3 in F major. It's a thrill to be able to follow a new quartet as they move so quickly to establish themselves as a major string quartet.
And then yesterday, at 4pm on Saturday, I got to hear the New Esterhazy Quartet play some early Haydn (Op 2, No 6 and Op 9 No 2) and some of the music of some of his contemporaries who were working in Vienna at about the same time that Haydn was. Of the contemporaries, as the New Estrehazy's Anthony Martin remarked, Florian Gassmann's String Quartet in E minor was a wonderful discovery.
One gets used to hearing modern instruments, with their metal strings, their powerfully curved bows, and their vibrato, and I wouldn't want to give them up. But every so often, it's a real pleasure to hear the early quartets performed on instruments strung with gut and tuned and played with bows typical of the Eighteenth Century -- instruments that sound as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven assumed they would when they originally wrote their quartets. San Franciscians are justly proud of groups in the Bay Area that promote contemporary string quartet performances. We are just as lucky to have the New Esterhazy Quartet to perform period music in the Eighteenth Century manner, to remind us of the string quartet's historic roots.
I drove to Santa Cruz yesterday to attend a party put on by the people who will be organizing this year's Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival. Santa Cruz is such a great place for a Festival -- its a little difficult to get to, via Highway 1 or via Highway 17 over the Santa Cruz mountains -- but the result is a down-to-earth small town that still reminds you of what San Francisco or Palo Alta was like in the 60s or 70s. The party was at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, and featured the announcement of the program for August and some performances. The Festival program, for one who likes string quartets, is disappointing -- there aren't any string quartets! One immediately thinks of all of the great new music for string quartets being produced and all the great quartets in the area, and wonder's at this lack of imagination. Last year they had Kronos. Since then Kronos has begun to premiere the new Glass String Quartet number 6. It would have been nice to hear that at Cabrillo this summer.
At the party to launch this year's effort, we were entertained by the Quartet San Francisco and they certainly showed what a string quartet might have contributed to the August festival. The Quartet San Francisco specializes in jazz and other contemporary music. They get some amazing sounds out of their instruments to generate some of the rhythm patterns of jazz. They also draw on Hollywood -- one of the major places where composers and musicians gather -- and arrange with composers to write things for a quartet. The group played several pieces from their new album, Pacific Premieres: New Works by California Composers. A disappointing festival schedule, but a very pleasant evening of quartet music.
April 13, 2014
Strings Week (a publication of Chamber Music America) published an article, whose headline read: "SF Conservatory Launches $17 Million Renewal Project." In essence, the article explains that David H Stull, the new president of the Conservatory has announced a major effort to transform conservatory educational practice in the coming years. I won't go into the details, which will be of more interest to students and teachers than to those of us who simply enjoy listening to music, but I did notice the paragraph that said that the Conservatory would be introducing a Graduate String Quartet Fellowship Program in the fall of 2014. This program, the article explained, "will allow a pre-existing string quartet to study tuition-free under the mentorship of faculty and visiting professional quartets in residence, while receiving performance opportunities, a professional recording and professional development support." The article went on to say that the inaugural quartets in residence will be the Pacifica Quartet (Spring 2015) and the Borromeo String Quartet (Spring 2016). This certainly sounds as if the Conservatory will be making it possible for those of us in the Bay Area to hear more from these outstanding quartets in coming years. For more information, check www.sfcm.edu/chamber-music
April 9, 2014
I attended the SF Friends of Chamber Music Gala last night. It was held at Yoshi's, a sushi bar and nightclub near Japantown, and it provided a chance for lots of people who have done so much to promote string quartet music in the Bay Area to get together and celebrate. And what did they do, besides eating lots of great sushi and drinking champagne? They listened to string quartets! The Friction String Quartet got things started with a movement of Debussy and a short piece by Dan Becker. They were followed by the Cypress, who played Dvorak's Quartet in F major Op 96, and then by the Alexander String Quartet, who played Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, Op 95. The evening was presided over by Katherine Bukstein, the SFFCM president, by Dominique Pelletey, the executive director of SFFCM, and by the master of ceremonies for the evening, Kai Christiansen, whose day job is as a musicologist with Kohl Mansion. It was a pleasant evening filled with good music, memories of past triumphs, and plans for new efforts to promote chamber music events in the Bay Area. When the SFFCM isn't celebrating, they raise money and help keep a lot of new and familiar chamber music groups performing in our area. They are currently presenting a free series of events at the Legion of Honor, and their major upcoming event will be the free SFMusic Day event that will occur in San Francisco on September 20-21 of this year at the SF Conservatory of Music. (For more information, see, www.sffcm.org/sfmusic-day/)
March 30, 2014
What a great year 2014 is shaping up to be for those of us in the Bay Area! It’s the Kronos String Quartet’s 40th year, and they have put on a couple of wonderfully mixed concerts of contemporary music to show the range of their work. We have also heard the Takacs perform the complete Bartok cycle and the Pavel Haas has performed a masterful Beethoven Opus 59 No 2. The Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg are systematically taking us through the Mozart quartets, and we’ve heard exciting groups, like the Cypress Quartet premièring Tsontakis No. 6 and the Friction String Quartet performing Glass No. 5. And it’s just April and the year is only beginning! (Now if only the Kronos will bring home the new Glass string quartet (number 6) and give us a local premier.)
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