Yesterday evening San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the fifth installment in the Salons at the Hotel Rex series for the 2015–2016 season. The emphasis in these programs is the intimacy of the 75-seat room, whose ambience recalls the arts and literary salons of 1930s San Francisco. The salon concept itself hearkens back even further over several centuries, making the setting appropriate for the music of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, in the SFP version the close connection between audience and performer(s) is reinforced with a Q&A session after the program has been completed. SFP also often uses this setting to provide a platform for new and emerging talent.
Such was the case last night with the appearance of the Telegraph Quartet, whose members are violinists Joseph Maile and Eric Chin, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. The group was formed in September of 2013 and did not take long to achieve recognition as the Grand Prize winner of the 2014 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. During the 2014–2015 season they had a residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This involved not only a series of concerts with an impressive breadth of repertoire but also the group’s first exposure to leading master classes.
Yesterday evening Telegraph drew from that repertoire a selection that one would not usually associate with the “salon experience.” They performed the first of Leon Kirchner’s four string quartets, which he had composed in 1949. Most likely this was a “first contact” experience for almost everyone in the audience (although the personal disclaimer that I have been listening to the group play this piece almost as long as I have been following their performances). For that matter there is a good chance that yesterday evening provided many with first contact with any composition by Kirchner.
Nevertheless, Kirchner had a strong attachment to the Bay Area, having done graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. He would later join the faculty and assist both Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch. He also taught at Mills College. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, however, he did not learn how to compose American music from Nadia Boulanger at the French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau. Instead he studied with Arnold Schoenberg at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Through Schoenberg Kirchner came to appreciate the rhetorical power of “emancipating” dissonance; but Schoenberg also taught the significance of drawing upon the past for structural orientation. Thus, when Maile introduced Kirchner’s quartet to the Rex audience, he made it a point to observe structural parallels between Kirchner’s composition and the quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 428 in E-flat major) with which Telegraph opened the program. Maile also emphasized that the chamber music of Béla Bartók strongly influenced Kirchner with particular attention to Bartók’s six quartets, which were receiving generous exposure in the United States. Maile added the anecdote that when the violinist Joseph Szigeti, who had championed Bartók’s music, heard Kirchner’s quartet in performance, he told the composer that he had written Bartók’s seventh quartet!
For those familiar with the Bartók canon, there was no shortage of familiar tropes in Kirchner’s quartet. Nevertheless, the music definitely had its own distinctive voice, particularly in its far more ambitious (and probably at least a bit cerebral) approach to dissonance. Furthermore, if Kirchner had learned from Schoenberg about the need for solid architectural foundations, his inspiration for those foundations seemed to emerge more from Bartók than from Schoenberg’s own structures, which tended to be more enigmatic.
Nevertheless (and again from a personal perspective), this is music that grows on you. First listening may whet the appetite, but it is likely to leave even the most attentive listener more than a little puzzled. However, the music is definitely amenable to multiple listening experiences; and familiarity breeds appreciation (and probably admiration) for what Kirchner was trying to do and how he did it.
Most importantly Maile stressed that, whatever the intellectual foundation may be, this was personally passionate music. Telegraph had no trouble playing it that way. So, if the logic of the music tended to be puzzling for much of the time, the rhetoric of the delivery could still sustain listener attention. Maile also informed that audience that a recorded performance of this quartet was in preparation, so hopefully Kirchner’s quartet will gradually come to acquire the familiarity that it has deserved for over half a century.
None of this attention to the performance of Kirchner should be taken as a slight to Telegraph’s approach to their Mozart selection. This was, after all, “salon music in a salon setting.” Maile even pointed out some of the wittier moments in introducing the performance to the audience, suggesting compositional elements that may have been based on a friendly rivalry between Mozart and Joseph Haydn.
However, Mozart also knew when Haydn had a good thing going. Like Haydn, he could appreciate the rhetorical impact of full-stop silence. The use of rests in the opening theme of the last movement of K. 428 is particularly stunning, and Telegraph’s execution could not have been more on the money. Such attention to silence is one of the key elements that differentiates the “Classical period” from the “Baroque period” (which tended to be more about filling up all empty space). Telegraph’s appreciation of that attention made a sparkling account of K. 428 that was just as memorable as their impressive command of Kirchner’s music.