LOS GATOS, CA—-In affluent Silicon Valley, of all places, a salient chamber-music series in a beautiful intimate church just bit the dust after 16 years.
The church bells in the steeple should have tolled on the hillsides when the Sunset Concerts at St. Luke’s Church played the grand finale May 22. With just a 150-seat capacity, despite people hanging from the rafters, the ticket income could not close the gap, and volunteers to keep running the program were in short supply. The crowning blow was the Arts Council of Silicon Valley declining to fund it further with the annual grant.
The concert featured not just local piano star Jon Nakamatsu, but also a unique performing ensemble: The Farallon Quintet, composed of string quartet with clarinet. There are some 600-plus works for this combination in the archives, amazingly enough, but the Faralloners contend that they are the only such standing group anywhere.
It’s an animated ensemble that hasn’t quite jelled yet, at least not within these overachieving church acoustics. They’re like a log cabin, built of rough-hewn redwood logs, contrasting with the urbane style in vogue. They remind me of rustic Austria more than Vienna (having heard the local Konzertverein playing in the small Danubian town of Melk, with country vigor and personality, as contrasted to the super-polished Viennese style of touring groups familiar to us).
Apart from the mandatory Mozart, their program was all from the past 100 years. I thought of klezmer music on hearing the jaunty, dance-like “Overture on Hebrew Themes” Sextet by Prokofiev, joined by the stellar chamber player Nakamatsu at the keyboard.
The program keystone was actually a substitution that nonetheless had the audience animatedly in discussions over intermission. “Citizen 13660—Vignettes” (2015) was composed for Farallon by Chad Cannon, 29, basing it on reminiscences of the Berkeley-grad author Miné Okubo, who had been interned with around 120,000 other Japanese-American Californians throughout World War Two in regrettable wartime hysteria. Each of them turned into a number.
Cannon’s eight vivid sections are built around quotes from the book. Fast-flying rumors in camp elicit hyperemotional musical intensity. The proximity of unattainable freedom bring out a minor-key lament, and the dusty wind a scene of desolation. Invasion by rodents is played out in a conflict of angry tremolos. And the finale, with reflections on the endless, timeless desert, evokes a wan clarinet solo and a perpetual-motion figure.
There was also a stab at the “unplayable” 15-minute Sextet by Aaron Copland, with piano (better known in its earlier guise of the Short Symphony). And, of course, the famous masterpiece of Mozart, the late Clarinet Quintet, where the clarinet is so masterfully integrated with the strings, where even cellist Jonah Kim gets moments to shine. I particularly relish Mozart’s unruly intrusion in the Trio (of the Minuet), where the order is upset by a rakish violin solo (Dan Flanagan) and some ensuing chordal protests.
If clarinetist Natalie Parker misconstrued it as a solo work with string-quartet accompaniment, she largely redeemed herself in the encore, “Theme and Variations” by von Weber, where her virtuosity in rapid passagework came to the fore, winning deserved plaudits.
CONCERT NOTES—Nakamatsu, who lives nearby in Campbell, had pulled off one of the greatest upsets since David and Goliath in his competition gold medal. An unheralded high-school German teacher out of Stanford, lacking any national exposure, he entered and won the 1997 Van Cliburn International Competition over far better-known pianists, performing the usual Tchaikovsky concerto. Almost overlooked in the excitement was his garnering a second (and arguably more valuable) gold medal there in the Cliburn chamber-music portion. Nowadays he plays recitals and concerto gigs, but is certainly the go-to guy for joining chamber concerts….The Cannon opus had been a late substitution when the Faralloners had insufficient time to rehearse and prepare am announced premiere by New York composer Shafer Mahoney….The small St. Luke’s stage shoved Nakamatsu & keyboard far upstage, preventing integration with the others through appropriate proximity and eye contact.
Farallon Quintet, with guest pianist Jon Nakamatsu, at St. Luke’s Church, May 23, ending the Sunset Concerts series, repeating June 1 at Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco. For temple info: (800) 838-3006, or go online.
©Paul Hertelendy 2015
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.