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Stepping Out

October 30, 2005

Scott Pingel

Photo by
Liz Hafalia

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We Appreciate

By David Bratman

The San Francisco Symphony is a superb orchestra whose individual members deserve a chance to shine equally well in chamber music. But the problem with demonstrating this at Davies Symphony Hall is that the place is simply too cavernous to serve as an ideal chamber venue. The music echoes hollowly and simply doesn't penetrate to the upper balcony. One peers over the railing almost uncertain as to whether there's anyone down there playing or not.

Far better, then, to hear such music at the Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, where six symphony musicians came on Sunday. The tiny wood-panelled performing space, essentially an unusually wide hallway, has a very high ceiling but is simply too small to allow the music to get lost. Seating wraps around three sides of the platform, putting most of the audience quite close to the performers.

One advantage of having a whole orchestra to draw players from is that it permits some unusual combinations to be heard. Without going too far out (no trombone sonatas or percussion duets), this concert took advantage of that possibility. We heard four works, in unusual combinations from four periods.

One for five

Anton“n Dvořák wrote three quintets for strings, but there are various ways of making up a string quintet. Only one of Dvořák's three, his Op. 77 in G Major, is for an unusual ensemble, permitting each of the five sections of the orchestra to send a representative: in this case Sarn Oliver (first violin), Amy Hiraga (second violin), Nanci Severance (viola), Peter Wyrick (cello), and Scott Pingel (bass). Pingel is the principal of his section, and Wyrick is his section's associate principal. The others sit farther back in the orchestra but also showed their worth.

Relatively self-effacing violinists, Oliver and Hiraga contributed to a highly co-equal feeling to the performance. If there was occasional roughness in the playing, it was from individuals trying to catch all of the notes, not from any lack of ensemble. Like many of Dvořák's works, the quintet uses lots of fast complex Czech rhythms, but this performance tended toward the smooth and lyrical. Its heart was not the lively scherzo but the gentle Poco andante. Dvořák, a violist himself, gave that instrument some notable leads; Wyrick on cello also had his contributions. If any instrument gets shortchanged in this work, it's the bass. As the other four instruments toss motifs around, the bass quietly supports the harmony at the bottom. Yet its presence gives heft to an already large and thickly scored work. A critic once called the quintet “somewhat inconsequential,” but I cannot agree, certainly not after this performance.

If Pingel was limited to a supporting role in the Dvořák, he had his chance to shine in the Duetto for cello and bass by Rossini. Written in 1824 near the close of the composer's active opera career, it sounds more like one of his Sins of Old Age: a parody of contrapuntalism, full of canonic passages with the cello, deep in its register, leading on the even deeper bass, with each instrument erupting into occasional complex solos. Parts of it hover on the edge of being unplayable and even inaudible as the bass tries to emit intricate figures, with awkward fingering, light-footedly. But both Pingel and Wyrick looked, and sounded, as if they were enjoying themselves. They don't get a chance to play something like this very often.

Virtuoso turn

Wyrick joined SFS acting assistant flutist Timothy Day in Heitor Villa-Lobos's Assobio a jato, which translates as The Jet Whistle. This three-movement work's title comes from a series of hissing glissandos the flutist plays quickly at the very end. The score advises the player “to blow into the embrochure fff as if one were warming up the instrument on a cold day.” Day managed to get the full blast effect out of the first three of these whistles. That was hardly his only challenge. The work is full of long impassioned chromatic flute solos that will try any player's breath control. Day surmounted these difficulties with flair and a tremendous effort. Meanwhile, Wyrick's cello growled and rumbled effectively.

Day was able to show a more elegant, controlled style in Mozart's Flute Quartet in D, K. 285. He was joined by Hiraga, Severance, and Wyrick. The 21-year-old Mozart was commissioned for this and several other flute works by a wealthy amateur whom he seems to have despised. But Mozart's father, watchful as ever, told his son to keep his eye on the payment. The quartet is easy to play, but it's also easy to make trivial. Day and his accompanists (not an unfair description, as the form is that of a Baroque concertino) provided the combination of bounce and flow that's the secret to making Mozart's lighter works beautiful. Unchallenged technically, Day poured his fine technique into exquisite breath control and phrasing. His tone is light and breathy; his ability to keep his instrument well behaved is unparalleled.

I shall look for these musicians at future symphony concerts with new appreciation of the technique and musicianship that makes the orchestra the fine ensemble that it is.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2005 David Bratman, all rights reserved