If you think being locked in an aluminum shack on a hot afternoon with a life insurance salesman sounds more interesting than celebrating New Year’s Eve by going to a classical music concert, you don’t know Benjamin Simon, the music director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. He wants people to feel that “Classical music is fun, accessible and not stuffy.”
Judging by the first recording this group made live two years ago, a lyrical medley of classical and neo-classical pieces by Mozart, Haydn and Stravinsky along with some of Astor Piazolla’s Nuevo Tango compositions, this orchestra is not just fun for the audience, but fun for the players as well.
Where jazz is free, loose, improvised, classical music requires great precision in performance. That’s the point of having a conductor, to make sure that everyone stays together. But precision alone does not make a great performance. Artur Rubinstein used to talk about freedom in handling the classics, but this is usually more honored in the breach than in the observance.
Too often, string sections seem satisfied with exact mechanical reproduction. You won’t find mere metronomic playing on these live performances. The musicians not only play together, they seem to breathe together, indeed even achieving a kind of classical swing—and not just on the tangos. There is the occasional error, but they are the errors of passionate, not inept, performance.
It was Adrian Sunshine who formed the original San Francisco Chamber Orchestra back in 1952 using players from the San Francisco Symphony, which in those days was a part-time gig. When he left to live and work in Europe in 1958, Edgar Braun, who’d been guest conductor since 1955, picked up the baton and held on to it until his retirement in 2002. He championed the free concerts that have been the hallmark of this group ever since.
That is when violist Benjamin Simon took over as director. Lying down where all the ladders start, he re-created the ensemble with entirely new players from the best orchestras and chamber groups in Northern California, but continued Braun’s practice of not charging for the music.
Well-known and critically acclaimed for his work with the New World and Stanford String Quartets; Orpheus, Los Angeles and New Century Chamber Orchestras; and Buffalo, Los Angeles and New York Philharmonic Orchestras; Simon has also shown a genius for music education. He is currently music director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, a top Bay Area youth orchestra. When he was the director of Berkeley’s Crowden School, he established the Sundays at Four chamber music series at the school. The Crowden School is deservedly esteemed for making the playing of an instrument as integral to learning as the reading of Shakespeare.
This New Year’s Eve, for the twentieth year in a row, the Orchestra kicks off its new season with a free concert in Berkeley. In fact, remarkably, all of their concerts are free. The concerts are subsidized by membership and grants. This year’s event is particularly to be recommended for its presentation of the world premiere of Harold Meltzer’s Concerto for Two Bassoons, especially commissioned for internationally reknowned bassoonist Peter Kolkay. He will be joined by Rufus Olivier, principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Opera and Ballet. Simon told me he had just received the final draft of the fifth and last movement of the piece which he described as beautiful and accessible.
Also on the program is the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major (K.364), an early Mozart masterpiece from his 23rd year, featuring violinist David Abel and violist Lesley Robertson. The back and forth movement and weaving interplay between the “male” violin and the “female” viola is one of the most ravishing achievements of any music in the world.
Two pieces by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), a cellist and follower of Haydn, round out the set. The Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet (G.431) should give some idea of his light touch with classical concepts. The Sinfonia in D minor (G.506), known as “from the house of the devil,” is noteworthy for its recasting of a movement from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, which Gluck also used as the Dance of the Furies in the opera Orphée. Boccherini’s symphony gains substance from his use of Gluck’s material which is full of diminished fifths, that is, slightly discordant tritones, the so-called devil’s interval. All in all, with two bassoons, two Boccherini pieces and a concerto for two strings, this should be a delightful way to open the double-faced doors of Janus on New Year’s Eve.