Monday, February 09, 2009

Clarinet Crazy

Friday February 6, 2009 - 8pm
Herbst Theater

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Simon, Conductor

Dimitri Ashkenazy, Clarinet
Sonos Handbell Ensemble

J.C. Bach: Cembalo Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 13 No. 4 (Arranged for Handbell Ensemble & Orchestra by James Meredith)
Richard Festinger: Clarinet Concerto [world premier]
Copland: Clarinet Concerto
Mahler: Adagietto for Harp and Strings

Still on the search for cheap seats, I decided to check out the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, which offers free concerts. I didn't know what to expect, but I feared a mob scene, so I arrived at Herbst at 7:05pm. There were about 40 people in line ahead of me, but it was all very civilized. The doors opened at 7:15pm, & I easily found a seat right in the center of the auditorium. The hall gradually filled up over the next 45 minutes. There were scattered free seats by the start of the program, so even if you arrived close to the start time, you could probably squeeze in.

For those of us who got there early, Benjamin Simon, the music director, came out at 7:30pm & gave a friendly 20 minute talk about the program, which certainly had variety. It opened with the Sonos Handbell Ensemble replacing a cembalo in a concerto by J.C. Bach. The handbell choir was arrayed behind the orchestra, & it was quite a scene back there, as the busy players scrambled for bells & flicked them at the air. Instead of clanging, the bells make a pleasantly soft & rounded sound. The more I thought about it, the more the whole concept of a handbell choir seemed unworkable & downright goofy, but there it was operating smoothly.

This was followed by the the world premier of Festinger's Equinox. It's a clarinet concerto in one continuous movement about 20 minutes long. Before the performance, Mr. Simon gave a brief tour of the piece & asked the orchestra & soloist to play musical examples. He demonstrated how it evolves out of a chord built up by the orchestra at the very start. The piece is mysterious, atonal & inconclusive, with many slow, sustained passages for the clarinet. Festinger himself was attending a retrospective of his work at SF State, so he was unfortunately unable to be at the premiere of this work.

The soloist was Dimitri Ashkenazy, who I had never even heard of before. His bio indicates that he is nearly 40, but he manages to look & act like an awkward teenager who has never been on a concert stage before. However, he is a secure performer, with a very even tone & good dynamic control. His pianissimo playing in the Festinger was impressive.

After intermission the Sonos Handbell Ensemble offered us an encore of Summertime & There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York from Porgy & Bess. I'm not sure that the Adagietto from Mahler 5 works quite as well with only 17 players plus harp, but it's a great piece to represent the Romantic Era on this varied program. It gave us a chance to hear how the orchestra's sound is anchored by the sturdy & musical playing of concertmaster Robin Sharp & bassist Michael Taddei. The lower strings play especially well together.

Mr. Ashkenazy came back for the Copland Clarinet Concerto, which I had never heard before. It is characteristically Copland sounding, especially in the wide spaces of the lyrical opening. It's also clearly inspired by both jazz & Stravinsky. It's a fun piece, a crowd-pleaser, & Mr. Ashkenazy dispatched it with ease.

This may have been a free event, but there was no skimping on musical values. Mr. Ashkenazy gave us 2 flashy encores in which his playing was much freer. The 1st was a splashy number with a Spanish flavor. Mr. Ashkenazy's rapid-fire playing sometimes made it sound like there were 2 clarinets on stage. He announced the 2nd encore as an excerpt from Artie Shaw's Clarinet Concerto. He showed off some beautiful high notes & then executed an outrageously long slide that got the audience whooping. It was a great way to leave us.

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