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Three Hits and a Little Miss

May 13, 2008

There apparently aren't a lot of moms who enjoy virtuoso chamber music, for although the Legion of Honor was packed for Mother's Day, the festive program of the Avedis Chamber Music Series ensemble downstairs in the Florence Gould Theater drew only half a hall's worth of listeners. The program featured unusual works, to be sure, but all were of the smilingly breezy type that's easily assimilated — nothing remotely troublesome in the way of repertory or the performances of it.
The afternoon opened with Beethoven's Serenade in D Major, Op. 25, for flute, violin, and viola, followed by Kirke Mechem's Divertimento, Op. 12 (1972), for flute and string trio. Then, following intermission, came Jean Françaix's Quintette (1988) for flute, two violins, cello, and harpsichord, and John Rutter's Suite Antique (1979) for flute, harpsichord, and seven strings.

Flutist Alexandra Hawley, a founder of the group, was featured throughout, with violinists Roy Malan, Susan Freier, and Claude Halter; violist Paul Hersh; cellist Stephen Harrison; bassist Ken Miller; and harpsichordist Teresa Yu as partners.

Mechem (b. 1925) has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the Bay Area, and is most notably famous for his operas, especially his much-performed setting of Moliere's Tartuffe. As heard in his flute Divertimento, the style goes down easily, like much of the school of Paris-trained American composers of the 1930s and '40s ... à la Walter Piston or David Diamond.

Mechem's four movements all smile elegantly at your ears, without revealing any hint of dark emotions (as befits a musical diversion). It's a charm machine, subtly packed with fresh ideas of instrumentation and few genuflections to contrapuntal niceties. The virtuoso musicians of Avedis tossed it off in such a way as to make it sound easy, a thing I doubt. Fun was certainly had by all.
Unmemorable, Even if Mozartian
Françaix's 16-minute quintet follows the traditional four-movement plan, with the harpsichord serving as a kind of continuo — that is, supporting the other four musicians rather than as an equal soloist. The work reinforces the composer's nickname of "The French Mozart." Here and there, Françaix (1912-1997) made a naughty gesture toward Ravel's Quartet, particularly in his Scherzo, but only in passing.

On the other hand, the Quintette didn't achieve quite the memorable tunes so typical of Françaix's early works, like the piano Concertino, with its frequent blushes of sarcasm.

Beethoven's oddly scored D-Major Serenade — no low-voiced instruments here — was clearly intended as house music. It's likely the lightest music the composer ever set to paper (at least, I can't think of a better claimant). Brilliantly played by Hawley, Malan, and Hersh, the piece caused the audience dam to burst into applause a few times for individual movements. (The program listed seven movements, but the sixth constitutes little more than a brief introduction to the finale.)

I can't say that I have ever heard so much intelligent artistry applied so lavishly to this piece as I heard on Sunday afternoon. Bravos to Hawley, Malan, and Hersh!
Treading a Middle Path
That leaves the problem child of the concert, Rutter's Suite Antique. Scored for flute, harpsichord, two each of violins and violas, one cello, and one bass, it might have been intended for string orchestra. Don't know. Rutter is, of course, an extremely successful composer and arranger, but largely of choral music.

In line with his concern for commercial success, the composer takes no chances. He seems anxious primarily with the need to avoid the slightest offense. So nothing strays from the familiar, and indeed, many listeners could probably pick up hints of other popular compositions. The opening Prelude, for example, comes perilously close to quoting the melodic outline of the (spurious) Albinoni Adagio outright.

It's entertaining music of a sort, provided you're not expecting something in the way of a fresh idea or two. There's no sense of climax in the work, no feeling of architectural direction. It just sort of sits there, smiling like one of those smiling-voiced television commercials. I can only suppose that Avedis chose it to end the program simply because it called for the largest number of instruments.

The audience made a show of polite applause, gave the performers one bow, and that was that. There were no encores on this particular Mother's Day, not even a bouquet.

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.