Chamber music demands of a composer the most impeccable technique and depth of thought. I don’t think I will be wrong if I say that composers sometimes hide their poverty-stricken ideas behind the brilliance of orchestral sound. The timbral riches which are at the disposal of the contemporary symphony orchestra are inaccessible to the small chamber ensemble. Thus, to write a chamber work is much harder than to write an orchestral one. — Dmitri Shostakovich
On Saturday night, while all the hoopla was (deservedly) focused in San Francisco, a diverse audience packed Watson Hall for the first concert of the NCSA Chamber Music Society season. I arrived early but had trouble finding a seat, until I managed to squeeze in between an 80-year-old and an 8-year-old. I struck up conversations with each of them, because I’m very curious about people’s relationships to music – and I learned a great deal in the exchanges.
Some might find it crass of me to be interested in such things. Oh well.
The music for the evening was 20th-century Russian: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. Note to self: as everyone knows, when you program 20th-century music, you’ll pack the house.
First up was Stravinsky’s brief, understated, but deeply felt Elegie for solo muted viola. Composed in 1944 in memory of violist Alphonse Onnou, the piece occupies a heart-under-sleeve terrain; it’s an introspective, unsentimental, but very moving reflection on the mystery of death.
The novelty work on the program was the first piece on the second half, Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor. Originally a ballet entitled Trapeze, the piece was composed in 1924 while Prokofiev was in Paris, eager to make an impression in a town gone Stravinsky-mad. The ballet company, cutting corners financially, restricted the young composer to five instruments: oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass.
The ballet closed after a few performances, so Prokofiev scrounged together six excerpts to create this boisterous, engaging quintet. The music is uneven, but often diverting and occasionally brilliant. It was fun to hear a young composer trying to do what is expected, losing his way from time to time, but having the talent and imagination to transcend the limitations of the instrumentation and the derivative style.
The rest of the program was given over to two Shostakovich warhorses, the Piano Trio in E Minor (1944) and the Piano Quintet in G Minor (1940). The trio is particularly popular on chamber music concerts, and deservedly so: the first two movements are quite fine, and the last two pack a resounding wallop. The quintet is a piece I hadn’t heard in many years, so it was a pleasure to rediscover the tenderness of the fugal second movement and the puzzling charm of the Finale.
The performances were outstanding – but the performers are all friends and colleagues of mine, so my perspective isn’t particularly objective. I will, however, note again that the 300-seat Watson Hall was full well before the music began, two of the works received standing ovations, and the enthusiasm at intermission and afterwards was really lovely to behold.
One gentleman told me, “That Prokofiev was one of the first LPs I ever owned – I bought it back in 1950 and played it over and over again until I wore it out.” When I asked a four-year-old what she thought of the music, she told me that she liked it and so did her kitties.