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House of Time Finds Timeless Themes in a Striking Baroque Program

January 24, 2017

San Francisco Early Music Society

A Sunday afternoon concert of Handel, Bach, and Rameau held out the promise of an escape — from the pounding news cycle of the Trump inauguration weekend and the steady rains that poured down on the Bay Area. But when some pink pussyhats turned up in the audience at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, prompting a preconcert remark by a San Francisco Early Music Society board member, it was apparent that nothing got left at the door for this performance by the four-member House of Time chamber ensemble. Several of the performers affirmed it, during the course of this chat-enhanced afternoon, with their own references to the country’s contentious times and troubled mood.

But even without those overt reminders, the program carried the implicit message that great music is never an exit ramp out of reality. It’s an exploration of human experience in its widest and deepest dimensions.

Nothing made that more clearly manifest than Beiliang Zhu’s wrenchingly beautiful reading of the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor. Summoning a tone that was serious without being severe, assertive but never astringent, Zhu infused every movement with a sense of probing urgency. It began right away, with a fluently pensive Prelude. The Allemande’s dark-hued double-stops seemed to foreshadow the hectic, almost desperate momentum of the Courante, which had the feel of someone in flight from a catastrophe. A spacious, mournful Sarabande gave way to a pair of inward-turning Menuets and a frantically whirling Gigue.

Bach may not be “saying” anything specific. But Zhu, performing the piece by memory, made the implicit force, grace, and authority of the suite piercingly articulate.

Bach was front and center earlier, when Avi Stein abandoned his harpsichord post and ascended to the St. Mark’s rear choir loft for a performance of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue for Organ, BWV 564. His dramatic account of the opening section balanced short, crisp phrases with liquid long runs. The key modulations and subsequent resolution came with a driving tension, which dissipated somewhat in a drily rendered Adagio. Stein regathered himself for the Fugue, its voices stacked and layered in a purposeful, brick-by-brick architecture of aspiration. The mounting impact brought to mind, for this listener at least, the cumulative power of Saturday’s rain-washed but undaunted Women’s March through the streets of San Francisco.

Another vivid moment arrived in the Overture to a suite from Rameau’s rarely performed Zais. Set off by a persistent and rhythmically restless side drum, manned by House of Time’s musically suave and masterly oboist, Gonzalo X. Ruiz, this opening salvo illustrated nothing less than the creation of the world. Ruiz couldn’t resist a remark about the composer’s scientifically prescient “big bang.”

Rameau, as this French Baroque master routinely does, backs up his showy theatricality with an arresting musical arsenal. The movement from chaos to order in the Overture was both weird and tightly wrought — in one wonderful touch the harpsichord fought back against the hammering drum with its own insistently repeated notes. Once the madness was overcome, a demure and elegant “Entrée noble” arrived, all delicately poised phrases and trickling runs. 

Ruiz made the most of the celebratory material, deftly switching from oboe to one of the two recorders he used throughout the concert. Before a wildly accelerating “Contredanse en rondeau” that brought this Zais sampler to a foot-stomping hoedown finish, Rameau and the adroit players lingered over one more isle of serenity, in a limber, caressingly calm “Air moderé.

Not everything in the concert, titled “Imaginary Theater,” carried such a volatile and beguiling charge. Much of the first half was devoted to a bucolically inclined operatic rarity by Handel, Il Pastor Fido. Two different suites were preceded by a long and eventful Overture, Adagio, and Allegro.

The musicians established their fluency and command early on. The partnering between Ruiz and violinist Tatiana Daubek was especially sensitive and responsive. As strong a case as they made it for, however, House of Time could only do so much to hold interest through a fair amount of Handelian boilerplate. The first suite, devoted to a hunting scene lacked much color or charm — although Zhu did make the most of her heaving bagpipe impersonation on the cello.

Thing perked up in the second set of court dances. A spry Gigue, stately yet sinewy Sarabande, and a wistful Menuet stood out. Despite its modest appeal, the Handel served its purpose as sweet-natured interludes between the high-voltage Bach selections and Rameau’s ambitious creation of the world. Even a concert that unlocked some unforeseen thoughts and associations needed time for calm reflection.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.