Michelle Dulak Thomson
Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.
Articles by this Author
Musicians who come from recording on “modern” violin (cello, piano, whatever) to recording on “period” (ditto) generally sort themselves into two heaps. Some check out “period” playing because they have noticed that some of their colleagues and of their listeners are interested; they try it, mess around with it (as we might say), and then go back to what they were doing before. They don’t scorn the “period” shtick, but they aren’t interested in living in that world full-time.
One of the handy things about Antonio Vivaldi, from a violinist/conductor’s point of view, is that few composers sound at once so familiar and so fresh. You can, of course, make up a disc-length program of Vivaldi concertos that everyone already knows; but it’s as easy (and much more fun) to make up a disc-length program of Vivaldi concertos such that only one person in 10,000 will know every piece on the bill.
“[email protected]” seems a made-to-order environment for the Cypress String Quartet. The players are veterans of any number of collaborative, multimedia, and educational projects. The best-known of these is the “Call and Response” commissioning project, in which Cypress asks a composer to write a work complementing one or more familiar classics of the quartet repertoire. They’ve done this yearly for more than a decade (the 11th commission, Elena Ruehr’s String Quartet No. 5, gets its debut performance next February), and the level has been impressively high.
Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions was the “Call and Response” piece for 2003 (SFCV’s review of the premiere is here), and it’s a honey, an airy, transparent essay largely in pastels, but not without backbone beneath the lovely surfaces. It has been great to see it persisting in the Cypress Quartet’s programming over the years.
It’s no surprise, though, that the quartet has come to regard its initial programming idea — the Higdon was designed to share a concert with the Debussy and Ravel Quartets — as maybe a little too much of a good thing. The Debussy is also on the “[email protected]” program, but the third piece is that instantly-familiar-but-hardly-ever-played oddity, Samuel Barber’s 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11. I say “instantly familiar” because the Molto adagio second movement of the Barber Quartet is better known (much, much better) as the Adagio for Strings. Once the movement was let out on its own and became an instant success, few have had much use for its original setting.
It’s certainly a strange setup: a bold, muscular first movement that nonetheless draws most from the gentler side of Barber’s harmonic palette; then the famous Adagio; then a tiny, truncated reprise of the first movement, just long enough to work up to a forthright ending. It’s difficult not to feel a bit of a jolt as the Adagio starts; before you can stop yourself, you’re thinking “What’s that doing in here?” But it’s fascinating to try thinking of the thing, with all its accumulated cultural associations (Platoon, various famous funerals, and so on) as it once was: merely the meat in Barber’s quirky structural sandwich. The Cypress, lovers of revealing juxtapositions and surprising contexts, must get of a kick out of playing this, the rare piece you can radically “recontextualize” simply by playing it as written.More about Cypress String Quartet »
If there’s anything common to great string quartets, it’s that they have collective personalities much as great musicians have individual ones. What inflects a quartet’s performance of a work becomes, at some undefinable but high level of accomplishment, not only four individual wills but also, seemingly, one composite one.
Even decades of piecemeal exploration by curious historical performers have not made German music of the generation or two before Bach exactly familiar ground for most listeners. The chamber ensemble La Monica’s most recent San Francisco Early Music Society program, titled “Out of the Depths,” assembled a varied but consistently interesting clutch of vocal and instrumental works.
The introduction of a new player into a venerable chamber ensemble is always a touchy thing; you can never quite be sure what sort of entity will emerge at the end of the process, how much or how little it will resemble the group you once knew. That goes doubly for the leaders of string quartets. For better or worse, the first violinist has a disproportionately large role in forming a quartet’s collective character. When a leader of long standing is replaced, it’s almost in the nature of a personality transplant.
Four years have passed since ex–San Francisco Symphony Principal Violist Geraldine Walther became the newest member of the Takács Quartet, and by now the ensemble sounds as though it’s been together forever. In the first of this season’s two Cal Performances recitals (happily, the two-concert-a-year rhythm looks to be an established pattern), there were a few untidy moments.
Michael Tilson Thomas
The San Francisco Symphony’s “Dawn to Twilight” festival ended last week with a devastating double bill. Pairing Schubert and Berg might look like the sort of juxtaposition apt to work better on paper than in the event. In Wednesday’s first concert of the festival’s final program, though, two late masterpieces (one for each composer) came together in odd synergy.
It’s a strange sensation, finally hearing in the flesh an ensemble you’ve wanted to hear in concert for a couple of decades. Judging by the friends I met and talked to at the Quatuor Mosaïques’ Bay Area debut Wednesday at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, I’m not alone in having followed the quartet for decades without having had an opportunity to hear them live. The Vienna-based ensemble has come to North America before, but only, so far as I know, to the American East Coast and parts of Canada. Thanks to Cal Performances for finally bringing them here.
For those who know the quartet through its recordings — more than 20 years’ worth, spanning Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, and stretching forward to Schubert and Mendelssohn — this first Bay Area visit by the Quatuor Mosaïques needs no recommending. But those who haven’t heard the ensemble yet are in for an uncommon pleasure.
I could wish that the players (who met as members of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien) were bringing some of their more far-flung recent repertoire; lately they’ve been playing music as late as Bartók and Webern. But the Schubert (including “Death and the Maiden”) and Mozart on their Cal Performances debut recital are enticement enough. If you love thoughtful, minutely detailed, joyous quartet playing, this is the one recital this spring you can least afford to missMore about Cal Performances »
When violinist and co-concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock takes over the reins of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, as she generally does once a season, the orchestra assumes a slightly different cast, a more intimate one. Part of that comes from the exigencies of leading from the violin rather than the podium. (We know that there was scarcely such a thing as a nonplaying conductor until well into the 19th century, but today it proves surprisingly difficult to manage big orchestras from the concertmaster’s position or from the keyboard.)
The seventh season of the San Francisco Conservatory's BluePrint Project had a deliberate political cast to it. The last several months were, as Artistic Director Nicole Paiement's season-introductory note put it, “a time of economic uncertainty, war, environmental destruction, and a highly consequential presidential election.” And the last program of the BluePrint season, performed Saturday night in the Conservatory's Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, hewed to the theme, featuring a newly commissioned work (David Garner's Shards) on the subject of war.
We Bay Area concertgoers see a fair number of visiting soloists, but they tend to come playing with either our orchestras or their own accompanists. Violinist Julia Fischer has been here several times before — twice with the San Francisco Symphony, once with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, once in recital, and always as the star attraction.
The Bay Area is blessed with enough music-lovers and enough enterprising concert presenters that few musicians spend long at the top rank without swinging through here on some tour or other. Still, I suppose I’m not alone among SFCV readers in anticipating the appearance of musicians I’ve read about (or heard on record), but who’ve not yet performed here.
It's not all that easy to maintain an artistic partnership if your primary job is "star." Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, stopping in at Herbst Theatre last Tuesday night under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, had just come from a grueling run of performances of the violin concertos of Beethoven (in Philadelphia, Jan. 8-11), Brahms (Rome, Jan. 17-20), and Berg (Madrid, Jan. 23-25).
As a theme for a recital, "the spread of an infectious Italian Baroque style" has maybe a little too much going for it to be genuinely helpful. As an anchor for Ensemble Mirable's recent program (titled "Influenza Italiana"), under the auspices of the San Francisco Early Music Society, it did some useful work, setting a couple of fetching ground basses in the program's earlier Germanic music alongside Marco Uccellini's famous Bergamasca, and later pairing Handel with his London operatic rival Giovanni Bononcini.
When a young string player reaches the level of fame that can support a recital tour, he or she generally has to cast about for a suitable duo partner. Rare is the cellist or violinist who attains star appeal with a recital partnership ready-formed, given that the becoming-a-star part of the process tends to involve a lot of concerto playing and woodshedding and not much else.