Left to right: Elizabeth Prior, Jay Zhong, Joe Edelberg, Kelley Maulbetsch, Karen Shinozaki-Sor, and Michelle Maruyama. Photo by Abby Wasserman. (Click photo for full view.)


by Abby Wasserman

A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music.

The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 on Nov. 1, 2020, the day after Halloween. Ghosts, pumpkins and clutches of bright fall leaves adorned SRS Principal Violist Elizabeth Prior’s San Rafael back yard. Since summer, she has hosted small open-air concerts, a rarity these months, and this was the last of the series and the circumstances were perfect. The blue sky was brushed lightly with trailing clouds and there was the slightest chill in the air. The audience, masked and socially distanced, faced a canopy that served as a stage for a luscious offering of duos, hence the playful title for the concert, “Double Trouble.”

The musicians in the sextet were SRS Concertmaster Joseph Edelberg; Associate Concertmaster Jay Zhong; Second Violin Principal Karen Shinozaki-Sor and Assistant Principal Michelle Maruyama; Ms. Prior; and cellist Kelley Maulbetsch. Trading off solo turns, the ensemble, happily equal in excellence, needed no conductor. They were perfectly in sync.

Ms. Prior and Ms. Maulbetsch launched the program with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eyeglasses” duo, a composed in 1796-97 but not published until 1912 (which may account for the fact that it is little known). From the first notes it was enthralling. Beethoven, who played viola, is thought to have written it for his friend Nicholas Zmeskall, an amateur cellist and composer. Indeed, its equal interchanges and lovely singing harmonies express an affectionate, playful friendship. The movement seemed complete in itself (a second movement exists, but the third movement was never completed). The viola and cello’s mellow voices blended and diverged and met again. One led, the other followed; they changed roles, then returning to close harmonies. The title “Eyeglasses” is believed to be Beethoven’s teasing allusion to the fact that his friend was shortsighted.

Ms. Shinozaki-Sor and Ms. Maruyama then gave a magnetic reading of five of Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, composed in 1931. These intriguing, short pieces (none more than a minute long) are based on the Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Transylvanian folk melodies Bartók collected as a ethnomusicologist in the early 1900s, often with his friend and fellow student Zoltán Kodály. The exotic lines and emphatic rhythms in these gems were played with respect for their harmonic dissonance and were endlessly compelling.

The six musicians next unwound a foot-stomping arrangement of a hoedown by musical polyglot Mark O’Connor, who is equally at home with bluegrass, country, jazz and classical music. The rousing dance tune, usually played on fiddle, guitar and banjo, was given a breakneck performance, threatening to spin out of control but here always in check.

The first movement of Mozart’s G Major Duo (K. 423) was next for Ms. Maruyama and Ms. Prior, who performed the glittering Allegro from his String Duo No. 1 in G major for violin and viola. At times introspective, the movement was played with exalted follow-the-leader passages and was a true celebration of equal voices. An intriguing factoid is that Mozart submitted the duo under Michael Haydn's name as the sixth of Haydn’s set of duos for the Prince Archbishop Colloredo, and apparently the Archbishop couldn’t discern the music from Mozart’s hand.

The next treat in the generous program was the first movement from Chen Yi’s Double Violin Concerto, performed by Mr. Zhong and Ms. Maruyama. The composition was premiered in 1996 in honor of Yehudi Menuhin. Mr. Zhong remarked that he has a special connection with the composer through her brother, who was the concertmaster of the Beijing Symphony when Mr. Zhong played with them. Ms. Chen, a prolific composer who teaches at the University of Missouri’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, was born in China in 1953, and raised on Western classical music. Her music synthesizes Western and Chinese music, incorporating village and city sounds, folk song and folk opera. This selection, a fine weave of all the instruments, was played with a piquant blend of sonorities that were captivating and novel.

For their final two performances, the ensemble entered a heavenly realm with two great Baroque concertos for two violins: Vivaldi’s A minor, RV522, Op. 3, No. 8 (l’estro armonico) and Bach’s D minor (BWV 1043). Mr. Edelberg and Ms. Shinozaki-Sor were the soloists for the Vivaldi and Mr. Zhong and Ms. Maruyama soloed in the Bach. The concertos are beloved and familiar, yet individually they are so complex and so skillfully woven that they are always a fresh revelation. The Vivaldi’s third movement’s luscious harmonies were like a meadow of bird song. The exquisite Bach, his only concerto for two violins, braided a stream of bright colors, and the Andante movement performance was simply glorious. Throughout the performances the six musicians maintained the illusion of a small orchestra, and only during the final movement of the Bach did one yearn for a double bass to add depth to Ms. Maulbetsch’s expressive cello continuo.

As the last notes of the sublime Bach lingered on the air, the audience clapped in appreciation, then rose to mingle with the musicians, enjoying gratis refreshments in the waning afternoon light.

Published in classicalsonoma.org, Nov. 6, 2020