Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Music I'm Listening To: Alexander Barantschik and Friends at the Green Music Center

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending another San Francisco Symphony concert at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park. This was an intimate concert with a focus on the violin. There were only 23 performers on stage--all strings--for most of the concert. I hadn't been especially looking forward to this one, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. The concert opened with a crisp performance of the familiar Mozart Divertimento in F Major (K. 138), one of those fairly early Mozart pieces marked by a lively earnestness. Tired at the end of a long day, it was just the thing I needed. Comfort music.

Having scanned the program quickly, I was surprised by the Mendelssohn violin concerto that followed. I had thought Mendelssohn among that group of great composers who wrote only one violin concerto--Beethoven, Sibelius, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky--but it seems I was wrong. Mendelssohn's beloved E minor concerto was not on the program but a piece in D minor--written when Mendelssohn was only 13 years old. I struggled to hear something suggesting the mature composer, despite what the program notes said on the subject, and the piece wasn't especially memorable, but it was interesting to hear, nevertheless. It was premiered only in 1952, by Yehudi Menuhin, according to an interesting Art Hound article I found online by Geneva Anderson about Barantshick and the violin he plays today (the 1742" David" Guarnerius del GesĂș, formerly owned by Jascha Heifetz).

After intermission, the group took up Britten's Simple Symphony, among my favorite pieces of music. Call me a philistine, but I love the sound of strings played pizzicato, and this piece features an entire movement without bowing. It was fun to watch the group plucking and strumming. Beautifully played throughout.

The concert would have been worth it for the Britten alone, but a more or less perfect performance of Melodia-Libertango followed, with soloist Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon, a kind of concertina. The piece is credited to Astor Piazzola and Jeremy Cohen. The program notes explain that we heard a Medley of Piazzola's Melodia (composed in 1992, the last year of Piazzola's life) and his Libertango (1973) as arranged for string orchestra by violinist Cohen, the two pieces linked in this form by a violin cadenza composed by Cohen. Alexander Barantschik, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, played the solo violin parts in this piece (and throughout the concert). A pianist and drummer joined the strings for the tangos. Asarnow's playing was exhilarating, but I enjoyed seeing his beautiful instrument as much as I enjoyed hearing the music. It appeared to be made of ebony with mother-of-pearl inlay. A second instrument was at his feet, although he never used it. A back-up? What is the bandoneon equivalent of breaking a string during performance, I wonder?

Photo of Alexander Barantschik courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony. Photo of Seth Asarnow from the Symphony Parnassus website. I'd be delighted to credit the photographer in each case, but no information is given. 

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