November 4, 2012
ARTefact is a clarinet-violin-cello-piano ensemble from Montreal visiting San Francisco State University for a master class and concert as part of the Morrison Chamber Music Center’s 57th season. Its Sunday concert, at the McKenna Theatre, started with sliding fingered harmonics and wispy high clarinet notes. A faint melody could be detected but kept dying like a weak breeze that whooshes in and out. I knew Hindemith dabbled in expressionism, and some of his most beautiful music is also vaguely impressionistic, but I didn’t expect this from him. I was ready to recalibrate my whole view of Hindemith and praise ARTefact for finding something something so Takemitsu-like to go with Takemitsu. And I was amazed at how contemporary Hindemith suddenly sounded.
After the ensemble returned to the stage for the second piece, cellist Yegor Dyachkov had a confession to make: The ensemble, he said, hadn’t realized that the Hindemith Quartet was printed first on the program and so it played Takemitsu’s Quatrain II instead. Now it all made sense! Listening for Hindemith in Takemitsu, I was listening for tonality and counterpoint. The funny thing is that I found what I was listening for because I sought it. Had I known it was Takemitsu, I would have focused on the colors and extended technique. It was an ear-opening experience.
When the real Hindemith showed up, it was definitely head-on Hindemith: Bachlike counterpoint with warped tonality, steady driving rhythm played with impressive strength by Louise Bessette on piano. The contrast with Takemitsu’s deliberately airy textures could not have been more palpable. This exercise in expectation affecting perception was the highlight of the concert. Chamber music recitals could use more outside-the-box surprises like that.
Although ARTefact plays expertly, the ensemble has yet to establish an on-stage identity; there is no chemistry among the players. They looked aloof, absorbed in their own amplified sound. Does a 700-seat hall need amplification? The McKenna Theatre, with its curious conelike shape, is somewhat dry, so I could understand its getting a little boost, but any mic-ing should have been discreet.
The sound quality was great but it resembled a recording. Even with the best mics and speakers, the directionality and closeness of the sound was altered. The result was an unnatural balance — I was hearing the violin from a source far from where the violin actually was, and I could hear all the nicks and clicks that I should only be able to hear when up close. I could even hear the piano’s dampers coming down. Are the organizers catering to the hard of hearing?
Individually, the players have lots of good things going for them. David Perreault’s clarinet almost sounded like another violin in the extremely high register, and his clarion range was dynamic and expressive. The growls in the Takemitsu were terrific. Toward the end of the Brahms he ran out of gas, with his middle range sounding nasal.
Ariana Warsaw-Fan plays with flawless bow strokes and impeccable intonation but seemed bored by the music. Dyachkov was expressive in the Brahms but could afford to dig a little deeper with his sound. Bessette knew exactly when to back off and when to take over.