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Ensemble SF: A New Generation of Passion

October 27, 2014

Ensemble San Francisco

With support for classical music seemingly ever-dwindling and graying, fresh programming that appeals to new audiences should always be a pressing concern. Enter Ensemble San Francisco — a hip, unstuffy, and malleable group of high-quality chamber musicians who are dedicated to precisely such programming. Their dedication informed both the content and the form of “Pasión,” a concert of Latin music that the Ensemble presented Saturday afternoon at San Francisco Conservatory’s recital hall.

The concert ran about two hours, and showcased some unsurprising composers. They included Manuel de Falla, a famous Spanish composer; Georges Bizet, whose often-performed opera Carmen includes a Habanera aria; and Astor Piazzolla, who is now sometimes called the “father” of Argentine tango. The mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland (who had previously performed the role of Carmen with Opera San Jose) sang both the Habanera and a set of songs by De Falla. Coffland has clearly mastered Bizet’s sultry song, and De Falla’s set allowed her to parade a wider range of moods.

Even with these canonical works, the group made innovative choices. For example —far from the typical prohibition against cell phone use — the performers invited and even encouraged audience members to text questions to a designated number. (I am curious about which member volunteered their cell phone for this purpose, but I haven’t called to find out.) The number of questions they received overwhelmed the performers. The inquiries answered on stage ranged from issues of the music and instrumentation to the favorite restaurants and fashion designers of the performers.

Another interesting twist on even the canonical pieces was that Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, which was written for flute or violin and piano or guitar, was transcribed in this case for oboe and guitar. The oboist was Mingjia Liu, a founding member of Ensemble San Francisco, who will also serve as Acting Principal of the San Francisco Symphony in 2015. He and guitarist Steve Lin performed the inner two movements of Piazzolla’s piece, which is a four-movement work intended to depict the historical development of the tango over the course of the 20th century. Since I myself am a flutist who adores this piece yet believes it works better on violin, I was skeptical that it would well work on oboe. Yet especially the “Café 1930” movement was luscious and lovely.

Enter Ensemble San Francisco — a hip, unstuffy, and malleable group of high-quality chamber musicians who are dedicated to … fresh programming.

The evening also included some lesser-known works. For example, the first piece was a quartet for guitar and string trio by Niccolò Paganini, the renowned violin virtuoso. While Paganini apparently wrote 15 such quartets, this final one is unique because it relinquishes the limelight to the viola. Matthew Young performed this part, and he was intricately supported by Lin on guitar, violinist Rebecca Jackson, and cellist Jonah Kim.

Another quartet closed the first half: Jose Gonzalez Granero’s Noche del amor insomne (Night of sleepless love). Granero also plays principal clarinet for San Francisco Opera, and he was in attendance on Saturday. He just composed his single-movement work earlier this year, but it has already enjoyed critical acclaim, such as first prize in the Villiers Quartet New Works competition. The composer, who was born in Spain, has explained that it was inspired by a schoolboy field trip to the home of the late García Lorca, who wrote a poem with the same title. It features sections of dark lyricism interrupted by intense outbursts, and also an impassioned cadenza for solo violin that Jackson deftly handled.

Ensemble San Francisco seems welcoming, warm, and well-positioned to expand not only its repertoire of high-quality performances, but also its circle of friendship.

Rounding out the program were pieces by Béla Kovács, a Hungarian composer and clarinetist; the Spanish composer Joaquín Turina; and John Wineglass, who had arranged his work specifically for ESF. The work by Kovács was a technically challenging solo clarinet piece, Homage à Manuel de Falla. Turina’s Círculo is a piano trio, whereas Wineglass arranged a piece he calls Octa Rhumba for all the players of Ensemble San Francisco to play together as a signature encore. My favorite aspect of these last two pieces may have been seeing how much Kim, whose personality is as contagious as laughter, appeared to enjoy playing them.

While the program was itself long, a wine reception and salsa dancing excursion ensued. Everyone was invited both to the reception and to the salsa bar. More than once during the concert, Jackson remarked that one of her favorite aspects of chamber music is how it brings friends together. Indeed, Ensemble San Francisco seems welcoming, warm, and well-positioned to expand not only its repertoire of high-quality performances but also its circle of friendship to include (I hope ever-burgeoning) new audiences. Its next concert is at 5:30 p.m., Nov. 8, at Le Petit Trianon in downtown San Jose.  

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.

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