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Concert program for Ensemble 1828

Friday, January 29, 2021 at 8 pm

Download a copy of the program here.

Ensemble 1828

Nicole Oswald, violin
Isaac Pastor-Chermak, cello
Alison Lee, piano


Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (1915)

César Franck (1822–1890)
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano (1886)
            Allegretto ben moderato
             Allegretto poco mosso


Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1914)
             Pantoum (Assez vif)
             Passacaille (Très large)
             Final (Animé)

About the program

Claude Debussy Sonata for Cello and Piano
Few works of Claude Debussy (1862–1918) bear generic titles like symphony, quartet, concerto or sonata. Most have descriptive or evocative titles like Printemps, Jeux, Claire de lune, La mer, Nocturnes or Ibéria. Since chamber music tends, more than any other, to rely on the traditional forms of classical structure, it is scarcely surprising to learn that Debussy composed so little in this category. Most of the exceptions are found either in works of his student years or from the end of his life, when he looked more to Classical models and absolute music for his inspiration. Hence we find him in 1915 embarking on a project to compose six sonatas, each for a different combination of instruments. Only three were actually written, as Debussy’s health was rapidly declining. The first of these was the Cello Sonata. The second was for flute, viola and harp; the third (his last composition) for violin and piano.

Except for the first three measures, the cello plays nearly continuously throughout the Prologue. Debussy took care to advise that “the piano must not fight the cello, but accompany it.” The principal theme is heard as a lyrical, descending line in the cello. This theme returns at the end of the Prologue after a middle section in which the piano momentarily assumes the principal role. Although the sonata is nominally in D minor, the flavour is strongly modal, perhaps in keeping with Debussy’s presumed intent that the sonata evoke the character of old Italian commedia dell’arte.

The two following movements are played without pause. The Sérénade throws out bizarre whorls of sound much in the manner of a moonstruck, crazed harlequin careening about the stage. Sarcasm, banter, and an air of the fantastique are created through the use of special effects for the cello including pizzicato, glissando, sur la touche (bowing over the fingerboard) and flautando (delicate, flute-like sounds). The Finale, like the previous movements, leaves the cellist scarcely a moment’s rest, but the piano writing is far denser than in the Sérénade. Cello and piano engage in exuberant dialogue and reckless antics, pausing only for a moment of quiet reflection before resuming their drive to the finish. (Robert Markow)

César Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano
The marriage of violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and Louise Bourdeau in 1886 inspired Franck’s lone Violin Sonata. Like Franck, Ysaÿe (1858–1931) was born in Liège. A composer himself, he became a champion of the newest French music. (In addition to Franck’s Sonata, the Concerto and Poème by Chausson and Debussy’s String Quartet are dedicated to him.) Although 64 years old in 1886, Franck was still known primarily as an organist – at the important church St. Clotilde and the lavish public arts palace the Trocadéro, as well as professor of organ at the Conservatory. The recognition that he gained in the last years of his life, and then increasingly afterwards, was due in large part to the fervent missionary work of supporters such as Ysaÿe. The violinist played Franck’s Sonata many times on his wide-ranging tours, telling his listeners that he played it “con amore” since it was a wedding present.

Franck originally intended the opening movement to be slow and reflective, but Ysaÿe persuaded him that it worked best at a quicker tempo, so Franck marked it Allegretto, though with the qualifier ben moderato. The movement juxtaposes rather than develops two themes, the first given almost exclusively to the violin, the second to the piano. These themes, particularly the violin’s, will return in the following movements, a sort of cyclical recontextualizing that Franck picked up from Liszt.

The second movement is a dramatic scherzo in D minor, opening as a turbulent piano toccata, then with a surging, offbeat violin line laid over it. There are lyrical or pensive interludes, working like trio sections, but the roiling toccata always reasserts itself, ending with a final sweep to D-major triumph.

The voice-led chromaticism that Franck absorbed from Wagner is apparent in the piano’s almost Tristanesque introduction to the third movement, a Recitativo-Fantasia. This introduction is also a reference to the opening of the Sonata, and much of this free-form movement is devoted to reflection on the previous movements. As the heading of the movement clearly indicates, there is a pronounced personality split midway through, as the improvisatory Recitativo yields to the more insistently directed Fantasia, which picks up some of the rumbling power of the second movement. The violin has a freshly configured dramatic theme in this section, which will come back in the finale.

That finale begins in a state of pure lyric grace, with a lovely optimistic theme that is played in canon, the violin following the piano’s lead a bar later. This is developed against stormier energies from the second movement in a section that shifts from five flats to six sharps and back. The opening theme of the movement sneaks back into A major with all of its original sweetness – and in canon again – before swelling into exultant joy. (John Henken)

Maurice Ravel Piano Trio
When in 1914 Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) determined to compose a piano trio, he was all too aware of the difficulties engendered by the mixed marriage of piano and strings. His solutions are altogether successful and wide-ranging. Note the introduction, in which the piano plays a chordal melody in the right hand over undulating octaves in the left, after which the strings enter with their own version of the same melody. Both violin and cello are set high in their respective ranges, improving their audibility, but even more significantly, they are placed resolutely out of the piano’s way—the violin well above the piano, and the cello tucked in carefully between the piano’s right and left hands. Versions of the same strategy are found throughout the work—for example, a slower transitional passage in the first movement that places the piano’s soft chords above both string instruments. Ravel also made abundant use of alternate string techniques such as harmonics, pizzicato, tremolos, and sustained trills, all in the interest of maintaining a solid balance between the three instruments.

The end result is a piano trio with an orchestral sheen about it, one of the most sonically satisfying examples of the genre ever written. However, all that technical magic would be little more than intriguing frippery without solid content, and here also the trio shines forth. Its four movements are each meticulously constructed and filled with fascinating material, some of it drawn from Basque folk idioms (such as the zortziko rhythms of the first movement), and some of it reaching well beyond Ravel’s own time and place. Ravel titles the second movement Pantoum, which is a verse form from Malaysia in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. (Tidbit: Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for I Am Going to Like it Here in Flower Drum Song are in pantoum from.) Precisely how that translates to music remains a bit of a mystery, but perhaps the movement’s alternating pair of themes suggested the verse form to Ravel.

The trio evokes the past in its third movement, a passacaille, better known in its Italian spelling as passacaglia. It’s a variation form stemming back to the sixteenth century, in which a repeated bass line provides a static foundation for an unfolding series of variations. In a fine bit of structural integration, Ravel derived that bass line from the first theme of the Pantoum. The spectacular finale makes use of irregular meters (fives and sevens, no less) and brings the work to a close in a sunburst of major mode. (Scott Foglesong)

About the performers

Ensemble 1828—violinist Nicole Oswald, cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and pianist Alison Lee—debuted in June 2019 with a seven-concert tour of Northern California cities, performing an all-Schubert program to packed houses and critical acclaim. Honoring Schubert’s last and most productive year with their name, Ensemble 1828’s debut was praised for its “thoroughly engaging energy” and “rhetorical uniqueness.” In March 2020, the trio was back on tour in the Bay Area celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday with performances of his Archduke trio, squeezing in a weekend of concerts only hours before the Covid-19 Shelter-in-Place order. With live performances canceled for the foreseeable future, Ensemble 1828 brought their June 2020 program to a national audience with two live-stream concerts, as well as a recording date at 25th Street Recording Studios in Oakland. The trio is excited to announce upcoming dates in 2021, bringing an all-French program to venues including Santa Cruz Chamber Players, Old First Concerts in San Francisco, Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and online broadcasts available worldwide.

Nicole Oswald is currently a violin fellow in The Orchestra Now at Bard College in NY. She was recently featured as concertmaster in a socially distanced concert held at the Fischer Center in October 2020.  Earlier in 2020, Oswald received a Master of Music degree under the world- renowned violinist, Andrés Cárdenes at the Carnegie Mellon School of Music. At CMU, Nicole was a graduate assistant and served as concertmaster of the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra and a violinist in the honors string quartet. Nicole is a recipient of the Lucyane Guedes Memorial Award, 2020. Nicole received an Artist Diploma from the Frost School of Music in Miami, FL 2018. There, she studied under Charles Castleman as a graduate teaching assistant and Henry Mancini Institute fellow. Prior to her studies in Miami, Nicole attended the Utrechts Conservatory in The Netherlands as well as the Eastman School of Music. Nicole has been a guest artist at the Castleman Quartet Program and studied chamber music with members of the; Pacifica, Fine Arts, Ying, Dover, Cavani, Concord, Juilliard, Bergonzi and Chilingirian String Quartets. Nicole was a featured soloist with the Coeur d’Alene Symphony Orchestra after winning their 2012 National Young Artists Competition. Recently, she was a featured soloist with the Cincinnati Community Orchestra in December 2018 performing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. While in Miami, Nicole was a chamber music teacher at; Miami Youth for Chamber Music, appeared as a guest violinist with the Bergonzi String Quartet and performed in the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra. Since fall 2019, Nicole won a position in the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra as a section violinist where she worked part time while finishing her graduate studies at CMU. Nicole performs on a 1917 Carl Becker violin.

A native of Fremont, California, Alison Lee is a pianist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She is the first prize winner of several competitions including Thursday Musical’s Scholarship Competition and the Dorothy Van Waynen Piano Competition, and second prize winner at the Midwest International Piano Competition. Her concerto appearances include performances with Coeur d’Alene Symphony and Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony.

Besides performing as a soloist, Alison enjoys playing chamber music and is the pianist of Ensemble 1828, a touring piano trio that presents several programs each year. Other collaborative performances include appearances with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinist Charles Castleman. She currently serves on the board of East Bay Music Foundation as director of the East Bay Chamber Music Festival. Alison holds a doctoral degree in piano performance from the University of Minnesota, and her previous teachers include Lydia Artymiw, Jon Kimura Parker and Angela Cheng.

Isaac Pastor-Chermak is Principal Cellist of Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony; Associate Principal Cellist of Stockton Symphony; Assistant Principal Cellist of Opera San Jose and Fresno Philharmonic; and a member of Berkeley Symphony, Santa Barbara Symphony, Monterey Symphony, Santa Cruz Symphony, and Dayton Philharmonic. He spends his summers at the Eisenstadt Classical Music Festival in Austria, where he is Assistant Principal Cellist, and the Lake Tahoe Music Festival, as Principal Cellist. Mr. Pastor-Chermak is the cellist of Black Cedar Trio, the only professional flute-cello-guitar ensemble in the country, and Ensemble 1828, a piano trio, as well as a frequent sonata collaborator with pianists Miles Graber and Alison Lee.

Mr. Pastor-Chermak is in constant demand as a solo artist, performing more than 100 concerts every season on an 1889 Riccardo Antoniazzi cello. Some highlights of recent and upcoming seasons include the CD release of Backlash Bach with Red Cedar Chamber Music in September 2020; online and in-person concert tours with Ensemble 1828; a performance of the complete Bach Cello Suites on his birthday; a performance of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas on Beethoven’s birthday; and Preludes and Prologues, his debut CD with Ms. Lee, which is due out January 2021. Mr. Pastor-Chermak fits these creative projects around weekly symphonic programs throughout the country, as well as his local teaching and conducting obligations.

As an educator, Mr. Pastor-Chermak teaches a small-but-mighty studio of private students, who receive consistent high marks in regional competitions and have been admitted to the top conservatories in the country. Pastor-Chermak sits on the Board of Directors of the East Bay Music Foundation, which supports outreach and performance opportunities for young musicians, and Calliope, a brand new ‘arts hub’ based in Albany, CA. Mr. Pastor-Chermak holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. with honors) and San Francisco Conservatory of Music (M.M. with honors). He makes his home in the North Berkeley hills, but is at home wherever the music takes him.

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