June 3, 2008
In a fitting conclusion to a season that has featured works like Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and William Bolcom's Fairy Tales, the Gold Coast Chamber Players ended their 2008 cycle with a program of musical knickknacks both familiar and obscure. Works by Franz Schubert were paired with a rarely heard suite by Bohuslav Martinů in an afternoon of informal pleasantry, enhanced by the ski-lodge-like comfort of the Soda Center at St. Mary's College in Moraga.
Appropriately, the program began with Schubert's "Trout" Quintet in A Major, composed for the same sort of "living room performance" that the Gold Coast Chamber Players sought to re-create. At the time of its composition (the late 1810s), the quintet's scoring was something of a novelty. Rather than adding a piano to a string quartet, Schubert's quintet comprises piano plus one member each of the string family, replacing the second violin with a bass. This poses interesting challenges of balance and dynamics, with each instrument switching from melody to accompaniment at a moment's notice.
For the most part, the Gold Coast ensemble proved to be up to the task. Special mention should go to bassist Steve d'Amico and pianist Daniel Shapiro, who responded to the music's nuances with subtle precision. D'Amico did not simply play loudly when he had the melody and softly when he didn't; rather, he zoomed in and out of aural focus like a camera, giving the work a sense of depth. Shapiro, too, took command of the texture when the music called for it and then just as nimbly faded back to the very fringe of audibility.
The ensemble's delicate balance was sometimes thrown askew by violinist Raushan Akhmedyarova, who did not engage with Schubert's textures with the same care that her fellow musicians displayed. She played accompanimental passages the same way she played the melody, dulling the edges of both and dampening the spirit of this otherwise playful piece. In the second movement Andante, the piano and violin echo each other in a sort of musical conversation. While d'Amico put a little rhythmic push behind his gestures, Akhmedyarova preferred to lean into hers with heavier legato, obscuring the sense of dialogue.
The ensemble followed the quintet with Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (1828) for piano, clarinet, and voice. This, too, presented a mismatch of sorts, pairing Tony Striplen's straight-toned clarinet playing with Ji Young Yang's vibrato-heavy singing. The juxtaposition was jarring at first. Yang's operatic delivery seemed to have little to do with the shepherd of the text; it was almost as if she was oblivious to the rustic tone set by the clarinet. But it was hard not to be won over by her vocal gymnastics. She executed Schubert's treacherously wide leaps with quiet confidence.
The centerpiece of the afternoon was Martinů's Revue de cuisine (1927), a Disneyesque ballet about kitchen utensils come to life. The piece was written shortly after the composer had settled in Paris and betrays the influence of the musical novelties he encountered there. Above all, he was struck by the jazz invasion that hit Paris in the 1920s, though La Revue de cuisine is characterized less by direct influences than by jazz filtered through Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Ravel.
Of course, the challenge of playing jazz as heard through the ears of classical composers is whether to make it sound like jazz or like classical music. Here, the Gold Coast Chamber Players seemed to be divided. The second movement, titled "Tango," began hesitantly and never really recovered. The third movement begins and ends with a Roaring '20s riff for muted trumpet that simply begs to be played with recklessly hammed-up abandon, but John Pearson seemed to shy away from the task. In other circumstances I would applaud his modesty — but not in a movement called "Charleston."
Thankfully, Shapiro and especially Akhmedyarova responded to the music kinetically as well as musically, swinging and swaying in a manner that visibly engaged the audience. Indeed, it was in this movement that Akhmedyarova supplied the rhythmic energy I had been looking for in the "Trout" Quintet. Few audience members could suppress their smiles as she and the rest of the ensemble breezed through the spirited fourth movement finale, ending this charming and whimsical program on a good-natured note.