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San Francisco Choral Artists form new music for voices, strings

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The pairing of choir and string quartet hardly seems unusual. Yet when Magen Solomon, director of the 24-member San Francisco Choral Artists, began to search for repertoire her ensemble could perform with the Alexander String Quartet, she discovered almost none exist.

Except for a few contemporary composers, most throughout history have preferred to pair choral singing with either piano or orchestral accompaniment.

Given that both SFCA and ASQ tend to emphasize new works by living composers, Solomon and ASQ founder-cellist Alexander “Sandy” Walsh-Wilson immediately investigated which living composers they most wanted to commission for their first joint project.

They settled on three: Paul Seiko Chihara, Michael Gandolfi and Veronika Krausas. Almost three years later, their efforts are bearing fruit. On May 7, San Francisco Choral Artists and the Alexander String Quartet will join forces to perform music by five composers.

In a concert that’s repeated on subsequent weekends in Oakland and Palo Alto, the organizations present “With Strings Attached: Music For Chamber Choir and String Quartet.” The classics come from the pens of two of the “B’s,” Beethoven and Brahms. Beethoven actually wrote his “Elegischer Gesang” with vocal quartet and string quartet in mind. The short piece, quite beautiful and heartfelt, memorializes a young wife who died at the age of 24.

Consolation comes in the form of Brahms’ four Quartets, Opus 92. Transcribed by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo from their original scoring for vocal quartet, the songs reflect Brahms’ romantic obsession with nature and love.

“They’re absolutely gorgeous,” says Solomon, who translated the texts from German. The first song is about a night made even more beautiful when two lovers embrace. The last, to poetry by Goethe, extols the power of song to ring out heavenward and “pull the blissful days of blessed gods down to us.”

How’s that for romance?

The program begins with Gandolfi’s “Winter Light,” a work that transforms two poems by Amy Lowell, “Falling Snow” and “Opal,” into lovely snapshots of nature. The nature theme continues with Chihara’s “Clair de lune.”

“I think he’s a brilliant composer, very interesting and thoughtful,” Solomon says. “I’ve done several of his pieces, and I’ve long wanted to commission him. ‘Clair de lune’ takes off from Debussy’s text. Without quoting Debussy, he creates some wonderfully romantic French colors.”

Krausas’ “language of birds” is set to text by San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The fascinating connections with Brian Goggins’ outdoor sculpture at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore should be enough to encourage every lover of music and art to attend.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Choral Artists

With the Alexander String Quartet

Where: St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. May 7; “Meet the Composers” panel at 7:15 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (415) 494-8149, www.sfca.org
Note: Performances also are 8 p.m. May 14 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland and 4 p.m. May 15 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.