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Percussive Power

November 20, 2007

The great luxury of the San Francisco Symphony’s Chamber Music Series lies in the fact that having the entire orchestra to call upon affords multiple combinations per program. Sunday’s matinee in Davies Symphony Hall offered a prime example: There were musicians to accommodate a surprise program change, and to take part in two masterpieces all too rarely encountered in live performances.
The program opened with the surprise, Bohuslav Martinů’s Flute Trio, H. 300 (1944), followed by Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80 (1847) and Bartók’s imposing Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Sz. 110 (1937).

Players included flutist Linda Lukas, cellist David Goldblatt, and pianist Marc Shapiro in the Martinů; violinists Sarn Oliver and Mariko Smiley, violist Yun Jie Liu, and cellist Margaret Tait for the Mendelssohn, plus pianists Oksana Ezhokina and Naomi Niskala with percussionists David Herbert and James Lee Wyatt III playing for the sonata. Not many chamber organizations can afford to amass 11 musicians for a single program, particularly players of this quality.
A Breezy Substitution

For some unexplained reason, Martinů’s Trio replaced the announced Aaron Jay Kernis’ Delicate Songs for flute, violin, and cello. No great loss, for the breezy trio is so easy to take. It's really a kind of three-movement divertimento. Much of the trio has a dance feel — Czech, with an occasional genuflection toward American popular music. The flute tends to dominate the thematic elements, such as in the long solo opening of the Adagio. You would have to go as far back as Mozart to find music as compatibly genial.

Mendelssohn’s last completed quartet was finished shortly before his death. It’s a bravura display piece of highly serious materials. Actually, he planned to write another quartet of more typically lightweight music next, but completed only two movements – an Andante and a Scherzo. (Those were later published with two earlier pieces tagged on, a Capriccio and a Fugue, under the simple title Four Pieces, Op. 81.)

The F Minor Quartet is something of a throwback to Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses for piano. The quartet explored more adventurous harmonies than was his norm, not even in the darker passages of his oratorio Elijah. There’s a kind of darkly dramatic anger in the music, a thing rare indeed among Mendelssohn’s creations. It’s exceedingly difficult, and so busily bowed that it can be tiring for the musicians. And indeed, the finale did include patches of itchy intonation. Balances, however, were splendid.

Still in all, the major event of the afternoon came along with the Bartók sonata, a work universally recognized as one of the composer’s major masterpieces. Its power and inventiveness ranks it right up there with the best of his string quartets, and yes, above his most performed music — his Concerto for Orchestra.

First of all, the forces employed were unprecedented. But beyond that, the tight organization of the whole is a jaw-dropper. There’s a line of tension from that first soft timpani rumble of the opening through to those last, surprisingly soft tinkles of metal percussion. The first movement’s propulsion is roughly equivalent to the dash forward in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s like flying off a ski jump at 90 mph.

And that’s followed by a mysterious slow movement of vaguely menacing implications — one of Bartók’s moonscape pieces. Then he turns in a completely new direction for the finale, joyous and romping, filled with little inside jokes.

The result is as much fun to watch as it is to hear. The percussionists keep doing unlikely things. The busy timpanist, for example, has to lean over to give the occasional tap to a snare drum or two, or to swat the tam-tam or the suspended cymbal. Meanwhile, the second percussionist has to play a host of standard “traps” — the usual drums, triangle, xylophone, cymbals, tam-tam, and so on.
Blitzkrieg on the Keys
All the while, the two pianists play full force, with nary a moment’s rest from Bartók’s harrowing demands. I’ve often thought that this sonata would better have been named a concerto. Indeed, Darius Milhaud’s second two-piano concerto is accompanied by only percussionists, and Milhaud requires four players.

The musicians played superbly throughout. I’ve never before heard it done as well. And this they accomplished without a conductor to help hold things together. The unity of attacks on even syncopated notes was picture-perfect, and that with little eye contact amid the musicians. It was uncanny, like some kind of telepathy at work. You might well think this was something these musicians were accustomed to playing regularly for years on end.

Percussion music always carries a certain ritualistic association — “The natives are restless tonight ” kind of thing. Considering all the combinations possible, I’ve been a little surprised that the Chamber Music Series has yet to feature an all-percussion event.

There exists a considerable body of music for percussion groups, alone or with piano. Carlos Chavez’ Toccata is perhaps most famous, and if the series could manage a few winds and a trombone, his Xochipilli, subtitled “An imaginary Aztec music,” is a crowd pleaser with the highest potential. (Chavez was aided by the staff of Mexico City’s Anthropological Museum in decoding manuscripts and experimenting with surviving ancient instruments.)

For the off-the-wall fans, there’s the Scherzo of Alexander Tcherepnin’s First Symphony, scored entirely for unaccompanied percussion section. There’s a wonderfully charming Hommage a Rameau for two pianos and four percussionists by the unduly neglected Germaine Tailleferre, whom I admire unstintingly, not to mention John Cage’s and Lou Harrison’s percussion pieces. Enormous possibilities exist for banging away, and rattling the timbers. And an audience is out there for such programming.

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.