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Concerto Competition Winners Shine in SF Conservatory Concert

January 21, 2020

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Musical forces from around the San Francisco Bay Area converged Saturday evening in the SF Conservatory of Music’s concert hall as Berkeley Symphony musicians joined 20 Conservatory students in an orchestra led by SF Ballet Music Director Martin West.

The evening featured the Conservatory’s 2019 Concerto Competition winners, soprano Bryana Marrero and violist Chuxuejie Zhang, as soloists, as well as the world premiere of Eclipse, by Collin Whitfield, winner of the Conservatory’s Highsmith Competition.

Whitfield’s 2017 composition was inspired by his witnessing, in Oregon, that year’s total solar eclipse, the first across the whole contiguous U.S. since 1918. “What struck me most,” Whitfield wrote in the program notes, “was how deeply spiritual and cosmic the experience felt.”

The eight-minute-long Eclipse is meant to reflect the sun, “with all its light, vigor, and effulgent energy,” and what the listener hears is a string-heavy, loud, confident march in which unison passages dominate. For melody, there is a brief passage from the principal cello (Carol Rice), and the brass is featured well.

Bryana Marrero, with a 2019 master’s degree from SFCM and winner of the Voice Concerto Competition, made a bold choice for her solo role in the concert. Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven early songs) is rich with the composer’s early association with the ravishing romanticism of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler but clearly show his engagement with the 12-tone technique that would dominate the rest of his musical life.

When he completed the first revision of the song cycle for soprano in 1908, Berg was only 23 and a student of Arnold Schoenberg, whose radical change from romantic to experimental compositions is reflected greatly in his own path. (The second revision, for soprano and orchestra, heard at this concert, came 20 years later.)

Both Marrero’s lovely voice and West’s orchestra with student participation did well, but the balance between them was inconsistent. While the soprano avoided “oversinging” — that’s frequent among young singers, especially in such a relatively small venue as the 450-seat Conservatory concert hall — the orchestra “stepped” on her several times, especially in the opening “Nacht” (Night), in “Traumgekrönt” (Crowned in dream), and the closing “Sommertage” (Summer days).

The songs are set on texts by seven poets, and “Traumgekrönt” is by Rainer Maria Rilke, also featured in Michael Tilson Thomas’s new song cycle last week at the SF Symphony.

Except for a few slightly stressed high notes in “Die Nachtigall” (The nightingale), Marrero’s musical performance was admirable; her diction acceptable. Perhaps inspired by the gorgeous, hushed sound of the orchestra’s strings in “Liebesode” (Ode to love), Marrero sang her best here.

Youthful daring continued as Viola Concerto Competition winner Chuxuejie Zhang, educated both in China’s Central Conservatory of Music and SFCM in violin and viola, chose Béla Bartók’s difficult and unfinished Viola Concerto, written in 1945, the year of the composer’s death.

There are several completions of the concerto; Zhang performed one of Tibor Serly’s versions. The violist impressed with her technical security in the especially complex opening Moderato, taking sudden changes in volume exactly right, and excelling in the virtuosic accompanied cadenza. Here, the orchestra was more consistently in alignment with the soloist, made possible in part by the viola’s big sound and also the unusually transparent orchestration. 

Zhang brought out the lyricism of the brief Adagio and raced the concluding Allegro to a big finish, which received a long ovation from the audience.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].