Decompression Chamber 

Chamber Music Sundaes

This Sunday afternoon will be sweet indeed, as the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony launch their 21st season of Berkeley Chamber Music Sundaes. Never ones to shy away from challenges, the players present two of the great 19th-century chamber music masterpieces: Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor and Schubert's Quartet "Death and the Maiden."

SF Symphony violist Seth Mausner, who has managed the series for ten years, explains that players include anyone in the symphony who wants to play chamber music. "Any one afternoon may feature up to three different groups of musicians, with from seven to fifteen different musicians on the same program. Up to 45 symphony members may participate during the course of the season. Often you'll have people who've played together for years; other groups are more spontaneously formed."

Why are so many symphony players eager to come to Berkeley to play at reduced fees? "When you're playing in the symphony," shares Mausner, "you basically have to take orders from the conductor. You have very little creative input; he tells you what to play and how to play it. Here you can choose the music you want to play, and get together with friends or colleagues you would like to perform with.

"Chamber Music Sundaes has become a very important creative outlet for the members of the symphony. It excites musicians to do this, because rehearsing chamber music is a very democratic process. Here, unlike the symphony, the participants work out their interpretation and collectively make the creative decisions regarding the performance."

The series also offers audiences the chance to observe interactions between virtuosic soloists and the rest of the ensemble. One can see the signals musicians give each other and the body language they use to facilitate the performance. "In an orchestral concert," explains Mausner, "usually the conductor has the body language and we just make the sounds."

This year's series of seven Sunday concerts, presented at the usual 3:15 p.m. in St. John's Presbyterian Church, includes duos, trios, quartets, and sextets. While most of the repertoire is pretty "catholic" -- Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten are the most modern composers this season -- there are some rarely heard works scheduled, including Beethoven's Septet, Op. 20 on December 9, the Brahms Sextet in B flat major on January 27, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet on March 10, and Mozart and Britten Oboe Quartets with SFS principal oboist William Bennett on April 28. Tickets are available at the door or by subscription from 415-584-5946.

Mausner is especially excited about the October 28 program, calling the Brahms Piano Quartet "one of the most famous blockbuster works of chamber music. It's got glorious melodies and a really snappy Hungarian finale that everyone goes crazy over." And Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" is "one of his handful of incredible chamber music masterpieces. It's very gripping and intensely moving."


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