Violinist Kenneth Renshaw and pianist Audrey Vardanega will play the three Violin Sonatas by Johannes Brahms this Friday night, as part of the Old First Concerts series. The two are still students (at Juilliard and Columbia University, respectively) but have each been playing concerts in the Bay Area (and around the world) for many years. They first met when they both attended the Crowden School in Berkeley.
Although their last concert playing together was back in the Crowden School days, Renshaw says they have played together informally: "A while back we were just reading sonatas, and we read some of the Brahms, and we said ‘This is great, we should actually try to play all of them some time, perform all of them.' That then developed into 'OK, well, where are we going to do that, how are we going to do that?'" Vardanega had played at Old First Church, and suggested it as an ideal venue. It did mean learning the sonatas while juggling studies, and her own repertoire: "I play a lot of solo works by Brahms, and it’s interesting to take a step back and act as the foundation as well as the solo voice every once and a while, and see how Brahms uses the piano in a way to bolster the violin sound. And that’s really helped me and informed my playing of Brahms’s solo works as well... It’s a huge project, learning all three, because each of them is incredibly difficult and requires a lot of … a lot of thinking, also. It’s not just you have to learn the notes, it’s like you have to completely wrap your mind around where he’s going." Kenneth Renshaw says despite having the same composer and setting of instruments, each of the sonatas is a world of its own. "They all have a very distinct character, but at the same time I think when you listen to them from A to Z, you really get the story of kind of the later part of his life, when he was writing these."
Friday, June 3
It's the return of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, which every two years brings the best of the Early Music world to the East Bay for concerts (both mainstage and 'fringe'), symposia, and networking. San Francisco Early Music Society Executive Director Harvey Malloy says this year's theme is 'In Concert and In Consort" bringing together international musicians with the deep pool of local talent.
Just some of the musical matchmaking that went into the programming this year: the Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis, which made its festival debut two years ago, returns for a "Bach family" concert, and will be joined by Philharmonia Baroque Players and Concerto Palatino when they celebrate Purcell and Handel in the final mainstage concert, on the 12th. Juilliard 415, the period instrument group from that conservatory, will join Nicholas McGegan's chamber group for a Shakespeare-themed performance on Saturday the 11th. Baroque violinist Rachel Podger plays with Voices of Music, including a double concerto with local favorite Elizabeth Blumenstock on the 9th - and Podger is also scheduled to play a joint concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout, the famed early keyboardist. Malloy describes it as "an extraordinary opportunity for our local patrons to be able to hear these two really great performers playing in quite an intimate setting, which they would have not had the opportunity to do anywhere else."
Thursday, June 2
The San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy will play a program of Russian music tonight through Saturday, although he says especially Shostakovich's music rises above any definition that's described by nationality. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony will be paired with the first Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich, with soloist Alexey Stadler.
Ashkenazy, whose career path began as a concert pianist in Soviet Era Russia, was able to hear the Cello Concerto in its first, pre-premiere performance when he was still a Conservatory student. Mstislav Rostropovich was accompanied by a pianist. "First performances of important composers were announced, people told us, 'if you have time, Shostakovich’s first cello concerto will be performed with Rostropovich and his accompanist in the Union of Soviet Composers'... Many people came, many composers, many musicians, and Shostakovich sat in the front row by himself, nobody around him for a couple of rows. He was very modest, and very shy… Rostropovich played, of course, magnificently." Ashkenazy had a few more brushes with the composer: "He was a wonderful person. I played once for him his Trio. I played it with my very good friends from the Conservatory. And he was terribly nice, he said ‘Very good, very good… would you like some tea?’ We said, ‘Maybe you’ll say something about the performance?’ ‘No no, it was very good, you want some tea?’ So we drank tea and left! Never criticized, never said anything – he was very modest, and very devoted to his music."
Wednesday, June 1
The Irving M. Klein International String Competition gives players between the ages of 15 and 23 an opportunity to come to San Francisco and compete with the next generation of performers. Mitchell Sardou Klein is the Artistic Director of California Music Center, founded by his father, the namesake of the competition. He says the 9 semi-finalists will play Thursday, and three will be selected to play in the finals Friday evening.
It marks the first time in the competition's 31 year history that they'll be teaming with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performing in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. This year's semi-finalists include six violinists, two cellists, and a double bassist. "We have no violists this year," Klein says. "Violists have done exceedingly well in the competition, we’ve had quite a number of violists win, and they are now principle violas in places like Boston and Toronto. This year, there weren’t any violists that made the cut, but a bass player, and we’ve only had bass players get into the semi-finals I guess five times in the past thirty years, so each year has a little different flavor." All nine will perform Thursday, from about 3 until 9, and Thursday night the finalists will be named, who'll continue on to Friday night's concert. "The semi-finalists all play programs that include unaccompanied Bach, a commissioned work, this year written by Giancarlo Aquilanti from Stanford University, and they play a major concerto, and a sonata... By the time we get through the Thursday programs, the semi-final programs, we’ve started to really get to know each of them."