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Gold Coast Magic

May 15, 2007

Chamber music, by definition, should be intimate and personal for both the musicians and the audience. And few Bay Area groups have mastered the art of intimate, welcoming entertainment like the Gold Coast Chamber Players, as they again proved on Saturday in "Magic Flute," the second of their three-concert 2007 season. Playing in the compact auditorium of the Bentley School in Lafayette, the group unwrapped a full bouquet of a program for an appreciative audience, which included, happily, a sprinkling of younger faces, all of them looking pleased to be there. That seems fair recompense for a group that is so heavily involved in education and community outreach.
But it was not the only difference in atmosphere from the average chamber concert. The auditorium itself was festooned with student artworks and photographs; the background notes on the program were projected on a screen above the concert platform, including photographs of the mothers in the group with their children; teenagers and young musicians worked as stagehands; and the back page of the program had mini listening guides for kids.

Musically, the group eschews the long, heavily sublime chamber works that often form the core of a concert in favor of more approachable music. Even the contemporary classical pieces chosen for the program were digestible on a first hearing.

The title of Saturday's program was a nod to guest artist Julie Mackenzie, principal flutist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. GCCP built a program around the flute as a topic, but Mackenzie, like a good chamber musician, shared the spotlight with the distinguished harpist Sarah Voynow and GCCP's Artistic Director Pamela Freund-Striplen on viola. The trio played an arrangement of a Rameau keyboard suite (Piece de Clavecin, 1710), Saint-Saën's Un Flute invisible (the vocal part given to the viola), and two 20th-century works, And then I knew 'twas wind (1992) by Toru Takemitsu and Le Soleil multicolore (1969) by Jacques Bondon.

GCCP regulars Eric Gaenslen on cello and pianist Lori Lack contributed their rendition of Beethoven's Seven Variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" (from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute), and the Debussy Sonata for Cello and Piano.
Beethoven's Lighter Side
As a concert opener, the Rameau suite was by no means a throw-in, and it must have taken a good deal of rehearsal. It was, after all, conceived for one player, and the interweaving of its parts in the arrangement was occasionally intriguing. After this, Gaenslen and Lack took the stage. The Variations started off a little low-temperature, even for lighthearted Beethoven. Lack's playing was dry and correct, but a little stilted and uninvolved. Gaenslen, however, brought beautiful phrasing and tone to the work, warming things up, in particular in a lusciously played Adagio variation. The two then played themselves into warm applause with an impulsive, bright finale, delighting us with Beethoven's surprise ending.

You might have expected Debussy's sonata for flute, viola, and harp to appear on this program, especially as it was a reference point for Takemitsu's work — but why do the expected? The cello is an excellent counterweight to the flute, and Debussy's sonata explores many of the extended playing techniques that came to be de rigueur in the 20th-century solo repertory. Gaenslen dispatched the technical hurdles with ease, and Lack proved an alert partner in a performance that embraced the melancholic aspects of Debussy's masterpiece.

The trio came back for a second half dominated, as expected, by the Takemitsu. As Freund-Striplen told us in brief remarks covering a harp tuning, Takemitsu was extremely particular in specifying the sounds he wanted to hear, and animating them required intense concentration and skill from all three players. That they brought the piece off so well is a tribute not only to their virtuosity but also to their comradely ability to play off each other in a score that alternates between individuating the instruments and blending them.

And then I knew 'twas wind begins with a harp solo, containing a quotation from the Debussy sonata for the same instruments, and continues elaborating that short idea. Yet plenty of meditative stasis was achieved, as well. At one point Voynow struck notes and then depressed the pedals, creating a kind of pitch-bending that evoked traditional Japanese music.

Takemitsu went way beyond using the flute's breathy quality to represent wind, although Mackenzie's flutter-tonguing did seem to have a pictorial intent behind it. The stillness was often eerie, especially in the harp portions, with a great many notes played at the bridge. And yet it integrated so much of Takemitsu's musical personality that the final effect was hypnotic.

The Bondon piece made an effervescent concert finale, beginning with an airy, neoclassical ostinato figure in the harp. Inspired by the first manned spaceflight to the moon, the piece was the most openly pictorial thing in the concert, at times approaching movie music. The harp glissandos in the dramatic second section of the Allegro first movement, are, of course, classic tone-painting, and the instrumentation itself conveys part of the picture. It was pleasant and well-played.

The Gold Coast Chamber Players are a local find, and there is still time to catch their last concert, on June 3. Bring the kids.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.