Arts Listings

S.F. Chamber Orchestra Season Begins with Free Area Concerts

By Ira Steingroot, Special to the Planet
Friday December 28, 2007

This New Year’s Eve, for the 23rd year in a row, the San Francisco Chamber 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 grants and membership, which guarantees you the best seats. The theme of this year’s New Year’s Eve concert is Prodigies with music by Mozart and Mendelssohn as the examples.  

Between the ages of 12 and 14, Felix Mendelssohn composed 13 symphonies for strings that were performed by members of the Berlin court orchestra at Sunday concerts given in his parents’ home. Thinking of them as student work, exercises, he never published them. In fact, they were virtually ignored until after World War II. The String Symphony No. 9 in C Major from 1822, which will be on the New Year’s Eve program, was written when Felix was fourteen but not published in a practical edition until 1962. It is known as the Swiss Symphony because of the yodeling that can be heard in the trio of the scherzo, the symphony’s third movement. The Mendels-sohn’s had gone on holiday to the Swiss hinterlands in July of 1822 and young Felix remembered and used the sounds he had heard during that vacation when he returned to Berlin. 

The Mendelssohn string symphony gives us insight into the mind of a young genius while it was still budding. By way of contrast, the two Mozart pieces on the program reveal a former child prodigy as a full-blown talent. The Horn Concerto No. 2 (actually the first) in E-flat major, was one of four concerti Mozart composed for his friend, and the butt of many of his jokes, Joseph Leutgeb.  

Leutgeb had been a successful horn player in Vienna, Salzburg, Frankfurt, Paris and Milan and was an old friend of the Mozart family when Mozart began composing pieces for him in Vienna in 1783. By that time, Leutgeb had fallen on hard times. Instead of working as a full-time musician, he had taken over his late father-in-law’s cheese and sausage shop. He borrowed money from Leopold Mozart and Wolfgang, who had recently moved to Vienna and married Constanze, urged his father not to press the already hard-pressed Leutgeb about the loan. Mozart occasionally stayed at Leutgeb’s home when Constanze was taking the waters at Baden in the summer of 1791. They remained friends until Mozart’s death later that year. 

At the same time, Mozart could not resist having fun with Leutgeb. Mozart’s autograph score is headed, in red crayon, “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart has taken pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool, at Vienna, 27 May 1783.” The second horn concerto Mozart wrote for Leutgeb has a running commentary of insults written in four colors of ink above the horn parts. 

Also on the program is the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, an early Mozart masterpiece from his 23rd year, featuring violinist Robin Sharp and the Orchestra’s conductor Benjamin Simon doubling on viola. The back and forth movement and weaving interplay between the “male” violin and the “female” viola, like twisting strands of DNA locked in a helical embrace while performing a cosmic pas de deux, is one of the most ravishing achievements of any music ever composed anywhere in the world. With two prodigies, two concerti, a sinfonia concertante for two string soloists and a conductor doubling on viola, this should be a delightful way to open the double-faced doors of Janus on New Year’s Eve. 


The San Francisco Chamber  



Sunday, Dec. 30, at 3 p.m. at Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco;Monday, Dec. 31, at 8 p.m. at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley; and Tuesday, Jan. 1, at 3 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto. Free. 


For more information on membership, reserved seating and CDs, call 415-248-1640 or visit www.sfchamberorchestra. org.