The 58th season of the Morrison Artists Series, held under the auspices of the May Treat Morrison Chamber Music Center, began yesterday afternoon with its first free concert in the McKenna Theatre in the Creative Arts Building on the San Francisco State University (SFSU) campus. The program featured two of the best-known quintets for clarinet and string quartet, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581 in A major and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 115 in B minor. These were to be performed by guest artist David Shifrin on clarinet, performing with the Alexander String Quartet, the Quartet-in-Residence at SFSU since 1989. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury prevented Shifrin from performing; but the substitution of Eli Eban meant that the program could go ahead as planned.
These two quintets share several interesting features. Both were composed late in the composer’s life. Both were the result of the composer discovering the possibilities of the clarinet through a virtuoso clarinetist, Anton Stadler for Mozart and Richard Mühlfeld for Brahms. Both pieces are rich with the expressiveness of a mature composer, but there the similarity ends.
In spite of Mozart’s financial hardships, K. 581 almost romps with high spirits as he shows off how much he can do with an instrument that, at the time, was receiving relatively little attention in a solo capacity. Brahms, on the other hand, was as melancholic as ever. He had even given up composing, only to change his mind after listening to Mühlfeld play. However, while Mühlfeld may have gotten his creative blood flowing again, there is a darkness to Opus 115 that engendered one of the most heartbreaking conclusions of any piece in the chamber music repertoire.
Yesterday afternoon Eban was more than capable in rising to the occasion of filling in with little advance time for preparation. He commanded a confidently well-controlled sound from his instrument, always careful to balance his dynamics against those of the string players. The result was an ensemble performance that could not be faulted for fidelity to the letter of the score.
The problem was that the performance never got beyond that fidelity. Neither Mozart’s sunshine nor Brahms’ darkness ever really prevailed over the interpretations of these two quintets. In Mozart’s case this was particularly evident in the final movement, a set of variations on an almost (well, maybe not even almost) trivial theme over the course of which Mozart revels in any number of witty gestures, none of which ever quite registered yesterday afternoon. The Brahms’ quintet, on the other hand, concluded with the necessary dynamic swell; but any sense that this was a cri de cœur was absent. While these rhetorical shortcomings may have been the result of inadequate preparation time, the result was a pair of readings of little more than academic interest.
There was also something a bit too academic about the middle work on the program, the world premiere of Wayne Peterson’s “Bright Reflections.” This was the composer’s fourth string quartet, a brief single-movement composition. One could appreciate Peterson’s command of details in his construction, particularly in the intricate patterning of his rhythms. He also showed considerable invention in thematic material that ventured far from a sense of tonal center. Here again, however, what was missing was any sense of rhetorical delivery that drew the attention of the serious listener, neither seducing nor seizing it. Thus, for all of the elaborate construction, the most memorable feature of the quartet may well have been its brevity.