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Classical Revolution Knocks on the Art House Door

September 3, 2009

Classical Revolution

A small crowd gathers at the corner of Folsom and 23rd streets in San Francisco Thursday night, waiting to be let into Classical Revolution’s chamber music performance at the Red Poppy Art House. A man passing by recognizes the signs of an event and stops to ask someone in the crowd what’s going on. They talk at length, but no luck; the man leaves.

A little before 8 p.m., the doors open, and I run into Charith Premawardhana, founder and director of Classical Revolution, and Todd Brown, founder, director, and resident artist at Red Poppy. Their partnership has been a success: Classical Revolution was named a 2009 resident artist at the venue, where it will perform on the first Thursday of every month for the entire year.

The program began with Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major, as arranged for violin and cello by Bay Area composer Beeri Moalem, featuring violinist Elizabeth Choi and cellist Hannah Addario-Berry in their first collaboration as the duo Navitas. Moalem’s compositional method is technically artful, using imitation in the violin part to inject harmony and dialogue that Bach’s counterpoint could only imply. In practice, however, Choi consistently overpowered Addario-Berry, sounding louder and more confident. The easy melodic progression of the violin part drowned out the complex movement of Bach’s arpeggiated chords. It did not help that Addario-Berry played tentatively and did not articulate notes with authority.

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello further tested the duo’s ability to communicate with one another. With strong melody and counterpoint, this sonata clearly establishes interplay between the two instruments. Its angular motif and pizzicato demand strong attacks by both instruments, and the audience burst into gleeful smiles at the no-holds-barred performance. In the third movement, though, it became clear that this group’s weakness is adagio. Neither player maintained a legato line cleanly or convincingly. It’s possible they aimed for tenderness and lyricism, but the result was a meandering exploration that seemed more searching than reflective.

Emotions to the ForeThe second part of the evening featured lyric tenor Samuel Levine and pianist Ian Scarfe in selections from two song-cycles: Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Levine has a solidly muscular, lyric voice, but his dramatic ability carried his performance. Subtle shifts in his gaze and the color of his voice conveyed the gamut of emotions, from tenderness to suicidal despair. This ability was well-suited to Schumann’s near-bipolar cycle of love lost and reunited.

Scarfe offered an unexpected treat after Die Winterreise when he played Webern’s Piano Variations, Op. 27, while Levine rested his voice for Schumann. Scarfe’s technique for Webern is flawless. Head moving in abbreviated motions, fingers and arms jumping across the keyboard in a deliberate manner, his execution was machinelike in its precision. The piece garnered the most vocal applause of the night, including a lengthy whistle from Premawardhana.

But what about that man who decided not to join in the fun? Premawardhana admits that the crowd at Red Poppy usually consists of those who are already a part of the Bay Area classical music scene. He adds, however, that Classical Revolution’s performances at the Revolution Café (every Sunday) are usually attended by whoever happens to be hanging out there at the time, a much more musically diverse group. The reception at the café is always enthusiastic, though concerns remain that even if these people become fans of Classical Revolution and its unstructured presentation, they may not patronize classical music elsewhere. Luckily, increases in foot traffic are not the organization’s sole contribution to musical life in the Bay Area.

Rebecca Liao has produced several classical music performances in the Bay Area. A lawyer by day, she is currently working on an essay collection about contemporary classical music theory.


Ms. Liao,

Phrases like "technically artful," "strong melody," "solidly muscular," and "machinelike in its precision" are emotionally indifferent and do not belong in an arts review. Next time, I think your readers would appreciate more ink devoted to the heart and humanity of the experience and less to tired, technical nitpicking. I'm glad you support classical music, but this kind of pedantic writing is unlikely to create new fans. Still, thanks for covering exciting events like this one. I hope San Francisco has many more of them to look forward to.

I completely disagree with the above comment. I thought the review was thorough, and the phrases that the commentator disagreed with absolutely do belong in a review. This is a well written, thoughtful review which gives a strong impression of what occured during the concert!

I see a picture of what looks like a man playing a viola. I read the entire review hoping to hear about the man playing the viola. He is identified, and mentioned, but apparently he didn't play. He is again mentioned in the last paragraph - but the paragraph makes no sense whatever. Ms. Liao, what did you mean to be conveying in the last paragraph? I am still scratching my head.

As for the rest of the review, it sounds as though the singer did a good job, the pianist was good, and the violin/cello duo maybe not ready for prime time. Since (if Iam reading the last paragraph correctly) these players are amateurs, maybe your expectations were too high and your detailed review of their shortcomings a bit unfair.

Dear Anon,

The man in the picture is Charith Premawardhana, as the caption says, and he is the founder of Classical Revolution, which organized this concert.

And no, none of the performers in this concert were amateurs.