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A Little Gem

Old First Concerts

Date: Sun August 9, 2009 4:00pm

Among the gems in the crown of the San Francisco music scene are the Friday evening and Sunday 4 o’clocks at Old First Church. Those offer chamber music and recitals of quality programming by some of the Bay Area’s finer musicians — and at an exceptionally affordable price, too.

While the majority of the programs feature classical repertory, in recent years jazz programs have been added to the mix. With the August music dog days under way, there are some yummy prospects on offer by Old First Concerts, situated in the church on Sacramento Street at Van Ness Avenue. Considering the ready availability of public transportation, there’s no need to resist, especially if, like me, you’re a nondriver.

Most programs mix standards with an example or two of something adventurous. The cello and piano duo of Robert Howard and pianist Elizabeth Dorman is typical. Their Aug. 21 recital offers Beethoven’s Fourth Sonata and the Rachmaninov Sonata as the standards, but they open with Alberto Ginastera’s early Pampeana No. 2, his pastoral homage to the Argentinian pampas. They close with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, drawn from his ballet Pulcinella, after Pergolesi.

An even more original idea is Daniel Glover’s Aug. 9 program devoted entirely to piano homages by one composer to another. The list promises musical genuflections toward Haydn, Dukas, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Ravel. (The latter two, for instance, each wrote a homage to Haydn on commission from a magazine.)

To boot, on Aug. 28 there’ll be another program of Old First’s “Basically British” series, its 12th. This piano–string quartet concert will be played by members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. They’ve programmed the Fantasy Quartet by Frank Bridge, who is best known as Benjamin Britten’s teacher. Chamber music by the prolific French composer George Onslow (1784-1853) completes the evening.

The only jazz program this month is “Jazzberry Patch,” on Aug. 16, a Sunday program at 7 p.m. rather than the usual 4 p.m., which offers a program of jazz classics and some new original pieces. These are to be played by Don Pender’s newly formed quartet. (Atypically for a classical music concert, Old First averages one jazz event per month.)

August, alas, offers no choral program, nor indeed a single vocal recital. Except for July’s International Children’s and Youth Choral Festival, there’s nothing of the sort in sight through to late next month. (The current list runs only through Sept. 26.)

As these concerts are open seating, the largest groups tend to sit down front on the main floor — not a good choice, in my experience. You pick up too much of the sounds of the instruments being played: string scrapings, pages being turned, the occasional bit of squeaking from a chair or music stand. Such things are a bother if you’re really listening.

An even larger drawback from up front is that you’ll miss the blended resonance of the hall. Best to sit back a bit or, better yet, in the balcony. That’s particularly true of Old First, whose balcony has the best sonics to be had in the hall. In any case, be assured you’ll be hearing quality music in sterling performances.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.