Arts & Events

New: San Francisco Chamber Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday January 04, 2016 - 12:39:00 PM

Many years ago – how many no one seems to know – San Francisco Chamber Orchestra’s founding Musical Director Edgar Braun (1933-2002) began the tradition of offering a New Year’s Eve concert in Berkeley. Ben Simon, SFCO’s current Music Director, recalls attending these concerts when he was in high school. Currently, SFCO has expanded this tradition by adding, in addition to the Berkeley New Year’s Eve concert, performances on Friday, Jan. 1 in Palo Alto and on Sunday, Jan. 3 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. On the program this time around were two works by Joseph Haydn – the Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat, Op. 84, and the “Farewell” Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor – plus a Concerto for Three Violins, BWV 1064R, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and an orchestral suite entitled “Quiet City” by Aaron Copland. 

At Thursday’s New Year’s Eve concert at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, the program got under way with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat featuring four soloists – Peter Lemberg on oboe, Karla Ekholm on bassoon, Eugene Chukhlov on violin, and Eric Gaenslen on cello. Invited to London in 1790, Haydn arrived there in 1791 and was immediately asked to compose a sinfonia concertante by the London impresario Johann Peter Saloman. Haydn chose to feature a solo group of oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello because this unusual grouping would highlight the strongest players in Saloman’s ensemble. The result was a work full of elegant dialogue among the four solo instruments. In the opening movement, a brief string introduction precedes the entry of the first soloist, the violin, which opens a dialogue with both the bassoon and oboe, soon joined by the cello. Of the two double reed instruments – the oboe and bassoon – their dialogue featured the high notes of Peter Lemberg’s oboe playing atop the sonorous low notes of Karla Ekholm’s bassoon. Meanwhile, Eugene Chukhlov on violin carried on a dialogue with Eric Gaenslen’s voluptuous cello. The second movement, a slow Andante, was almost elegiac in mood. It featured dialogues between violin and bassoon, on one hand, and oboe and cello, on the other. The Finale: Allegro con spirito offered the violin soloist several opportunities to shine in virtuosity, and the bassoon was offered a dramatically rapid passage taken up also by the cello. All in all, this Sinfonia Concertante showcased late Haydn’s masterful writing for an unusual grouping of instruments that somehow all work together marvelously. 

Next on the program was J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins. This work was probably derived from a concerto for three harpsichords, an arrangement of which exists. However, scholars now believe the harpsichord arrangement was most likely derived from a lost concerto for three violins. So the work heard at this New Year’s Eve concert was a reconstruction based on the score for three harp-sichords. Featured as the three violinists were 2015-16 Debut Artists Grace Huh, Sofie Ledor, and Chili Ekman, ages 13, 10, and 11 respectively. SFCO’s Debut Artist program offers outstanding young instrumentalists the opportunity to rehearse and perform publicly with professional musicians. Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins follows in the tradition of the Italian concerti of Antonio Vivaldi, much admired by J.S. Bach, who carefully copied out by hand many of Vivaldi’s scores. The opening movement offers witty repartee between the soloists and orchestra. The second movement, a slow Adagio, establishes a lyrically melancholy mood, while the final Allegro movement offers each violin soloist an opportunity for virtuoso display. 

13 year-old Grace Huh was especially impressive for her technical virtuosity.  

After intermission SFCO played Aaron Copland’s orchestral suite entitled “Quiet City,” featuring soloists Kathy Connor on English horn and John Freeman on trumpet. This piece began as incidental music for a play, and it was initially scored for clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, and piano. Copland later expanded it into the present orchestral suite but kept the title “Quiet City.” This title is a bit of a misnomer, for the trumpet’s contributions hardly evoke a “quiet city.” Restless repeated notes blare forth from the trumpet throughout this piece, overwhelming the muffled, mysterious sound of the English horn. This brief suite strikes me as an unfulfilled work that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing or where it’s leading. Why it was included in this New Year’s Eve program is anyone’s guess. 

The final work on the program was Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor. This symphony offers one of the most famous practical jokes in music history. Aware that his musicians were champing at the bit over Prince Esterhazy’s decision to extend the court’s stay at his summer residence when all the musicians wanted was to return to the families they’d left behind six months earlier at Prince Esterhazy’s principal residence in Eisenstadt, Haydn created a symphony in which the final movement includes an Adagio section wherein players began blowing out the candles on their music stands and leave the stage until only two violins remain to finish the symphony in near total darkness. Prince Esterhazy got the message and announced, “If they all leave, then we must leave too,” and he ordered the court to prepare to return to Eisenstadt the next day.  

Musically, this symphony opens with a very lively first movement, marked Allegro assai, which is almost Mozartian in the number of dramatic themes intro-duced in quick succession. The slow second movement offers a limping, two-step motif that is almost lugubrious in mood. The third movement is a Menuet that trails off abruptly; and the final movement is divided in two – a Presto which suddenly comes to a halt and gives way to an Adagio during which all the musicians but two gradually vacate the stage. SFCO’s Music Director Ben Simon took this symphony’s “Farewell” as a Farewell to 2015, bringing this New Year’s Eve concert to a close.