The Haydn Project at Freight and Salvage

Nov 18, 2014 / By admin
Posted in Berkeley / Culture Vulture / East Bay / Good Ideas / Magazine / Travel |


The bright lights of the marquee over Downtown Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Theater are usually unconventional: “Learn  Banjo, Ukelele, Asleep at the Wheel Western Swing, One Night Only – The Haydn Project.” The glow emanates down onto the sidewalk, filling my pathway from the nearby garage with a pool of light. Watching my footsteps, Ican make out inlaid poems and low-lying sculptures worn into the pavement on this block of Addison Street, where the economic struggles of Shattuck Avenue tends not to trickle. This area is padded with culture. There is the Aurora Playhouse and The Berkeley Jazz School tucked into the bricks and stoic concrete facades.

The Freight and Salvage has offered concerts since the late 70’s, although this current location is new in the last few years. It still refers to itself as a coffee house, although I find its moniker “The Home of Traditional Music” to be much more apt. The theater hasswollen to triple its original size and the impressive interior acoustics and modern wood paneling make it an intentionally well-conceived stage. Coffee is a side note in the back of the concert space, where you can also purchase dollar cups of mini pretzels and bulging brownies. 

I brought my mother to hear the Haydn Project, a string quartet made of members of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, including its’ conductor on viola. We got there close to seven and the entryway was filled with the jolly sound of their rehearsing. The local classical radio station had announced the concert the day before, and I was intrigued to hear “chamber music in a casual coffeehouse setting.” We got seats near the sound booth and discussed Haydn’s personality while we sipped lemon ginger tea and crunched mini pretzels as more people filed in. As usual, I was one of the younger ones of the audience, an occurrence I often notice, and hope does not foreshadow less classical music in the generations to come.

The four players took to the stage without much ado, and the jovial violist introduced the Lark (Opus 63 No. 5), one of Haydn’s most famous quartets of the 70-odd he composed in his lifetime long ago. The first violin was featured heavily, and her charismatic playing brought out the soulfulness of the other voices. Each of the first three movements sped up to a scherzo, a new type of movement that Haydn (debatably) invented. The piece drew to a close with what I imagined to be a happy, sleepy bird, who had completed its daily foraging and nest-building and could sit on his perch admiring the scenery. The playfulness slowed into coincidental harmonies.

The group chooses to perform pieces that they especially take to in bi-weekly rehearsals. Their aim is to play through all of the Haydn string Quartets, an understandably desirable goal, considering Haydn’s huge influence over music written for this ensemble of two violins, viola, and cello. The violist reminded us of this fact, citing several other contemporary and future composers’ obvious homage to Haydn’s works. They play concerts around the greater Bay Area, sharing their joy of these works with audiences of various sizes.

The second piece they chose was pleasantly intoxicating. The beginning Allegretto, a slower allegro, has a lullaby-like appeal, with the same beautiful progression of a more famous later piece like the theme from Schubert’s “The Trout.” It was from Haydn’s last book of quartets, always published six at a time: Opus 76, number 5. Like the Lark, it was in the key of D Major. The opening of the memorable finale movement, a Presto, sounded to me like an inviting conclusion, repeated until the quartet was well under way, flexing chords and melodies into a fascinating sound tapestry at a breakneck speed. The players’fingers danced over the strings; there was an even balance in the voices, bolstered by the molasses tone of the cello.