New York sophistication at Kohl Mansion
There is a spectrum from small salon to huge orchestra hall. The Great Hall at Kohl Mansion is so live that it is barely on that scale. At a concert there by the Lark Quarte+ on Sunday, October 24, that magical space, first built by Freddie Kohl for his wife Bessie, was beyond intimate. With eyes closed one could drown in that sound. And open? Well, I was close enough to read the music over their shoulders!
This smart and sophisticated quartet chooses provocative works off the beaten track, and Sunday’s program was wide-ranging and satisfying. Classical, romantic, contemporary and show tunes all made an appearance. Spelling “Quarte+” with a plus sign, the foursome often collaborate with other artists, among them violist Kathryn Lockwood’s percussionist husband, Yousif Sheronick. This concert featured renowned baritone Stephen Salters in two striking pieces.
Antonín Dvořák originally wrote Cypresses at the age of 25 as love songs to a student, and 20 years later transcribed them for string quartet. But they retain their songlike qualities, lyrical and direct. In “Death Reigns in Many a Human Breast” Deborah Buck gave us high violin phrases, a soulful folk theme, backed by newest member Basia Danilow. Cellist Caroline Stinson added low emphases, then strummed across her cello strings like a harp with second violin and viola as murmuring ground.
“Nature Lies Peaceful in Slumber…” took us into a 1930’s Manhattan drawing room, filled with cigar haze and embroidery, with bounced rhythms and cello pizzicato.
After warming us thoroughly, the “quarte+” was joined by Stephen Salters for Theodore Wiprud’s Scenes from American Journal, his setting of the poetry of Robert Hayden. Salters’ ultra-smooth baritone needed no vibrato, and paired well with Buck’s sleek high register and Lockwood’s smoky viola. Hayden, our first Afro-American Poet Laureate, wrote of an alien’s wanderings on the earth, in the form of reports he sends back to “The Counselors,” reports of our extreme beauty and brutality. “I have heard them say land of the free…have seen the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities…a divided people seeking reassurance from a past few understand and many scorn.”
Salters sang the text with a commitment that held us spell-bound.
At a reception after, I overheard him replying to a question. “Where do I live? Nowhere. I’m on the road all the time.” And I mused on what it is to be a homeless, Afro-American baritone wandering the earth like Hayden’s alien.
Another rare moment was Jennifer Higdon’s An Exaltation of Larks, which wove the sweet nectar of birdsongs into nature’s cacophony. Though not written for the Larks, they have championed the work and plan to record it this November. Contemporary music’s phenomenon Higdon was the recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, and her work was featured prominently at last summer’s Cabrillo festival.
Very high pairs of notes turned the air metallic with keening. A vigorous cello added its voice, low and a little reckless, and each instrument exulted (or exalted) in its own song. Harmonic strokes added moments of high beauty, and the strings settled down to soft preening, with Lockwood bowing over all the viola strings with rapid arpeggios. After a lento section, they returned to richer blends and sharp harmonic strokes. Playful and deep, this piece was a treat.
After intermission, we were returned to gentler discourse—four separate Felix Mendelssohn movements, grouped as Opus 81. The Andante contained rich viola writing, while the violins kept a tremulous edge close to breaking. The Capriccio held Mendelssohn’s trademark sweetness, then swept into a fugue with a democratic interweaving of all four strings in a vigorous round.
After this crowd pleaser Salters returned for Elena Ruehr’s Song of the Silkie. Salters brought the yearning text to life as the Larks supplied oceanic waves and tumult. When the upper strings overran the lower, one could feel the tingle of salt spray and the tug of undertow.
They returned with two encores, Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess, and “Strike up the Band.” Salters patiently taught the audience their part, and we responded lustily. But the real surprise was the quartet’s wild accompaniment, in an arrangement by cellist Stinson’s husband, composer Andrew Waggoner.
On Sunday, November 14, at 7:00 Music at Kohl Mansion will feature Adler fellows of the San Francisco Opera in a special evening of highlights from this season and glimpses into next. Further information and tickets at www.musicatkohl.org, or at 650-762-1130.
Photo of Lark members from left: first violinist Debora Buck, new second violinist Basia Danilow, cellist Caroline Stinson, and long-standing violist Kathryn Lockwood; photo by Dennis Wigent. Detail of fireplace by Adam Broner. This article originally appeared in the Piedmont Post.