Morrison Artists Series offers chamber music for all

The Morrison Artists Series, San Francisco’s longest-running chamber music series, will launch its 59th season this month at SF State and run through May 2015, featuring free performances by six innovative music ensembles. This season’s diverse lineup includes a cappella singers from Norway, a quintet of woodwind instruments and a San Francisco-based, Grammy-nominated piano duo.

The Afiara String Quartet is one of the country’s leading young string quartets.

The Afiara String Quartet, one of the country’s leading young string quartets, visits SF State on May 8, 2015.

The concerts, which have been a performing-arts institution since 1956, are organized by the May Treat Morrison Chamber Music Center with the aim of advancing the art of chamber music and encouraging its appreciation. With world-class performances at no cost, Morrison Artists Series founder Edward Hohfeld believed that chamber music could be made accessible to everyone and that love of the music could be instilled in new generations.

"A lot of people have never experienced chamber music or been to a concert," said Richard Festinger, professor of music and dance and artistic director of the series. "In this area, like other metropolitan areas, it’s the symphony and opera that are well known to the general public. For a lot of people, chamber music may slip under their radar. But almost all major composers have written significant works of chamber music."

In many cases, Festinger added, chamber music is considered the "crown jewel" of a composer’s repertoire. "An orchestra is a big, lumbering beast and hard to maneuver," and the smaller scale of a chamber group allows the music to be more intricate.

The Alexander String Quartet, SF State’s quartet-in-residence, has been considered one of the world’s premier chamber ensembles for over three decades.

SF State’s quartet-in-residence, the Alexander String Quartet, will perform on Sept. 28.

Leading off the series will be the Alexander String Quartet, SF State’s acclaimed quartet-in-residence, performing on Sept. 28. A major Bay Area artistic presence, the Quartet has been considered one of the world’s premier chamber ensembles for more than 30 years.

Another concert will feature eminent soprano Lucy Shelton performing unusual modern works as well as Renaissance pieces. Another highlight, according to Festinger, will be the Juilliard String Quartet -- an "iconic, peerless ensemble" whose performance in the series two years ago was so popular that 300 people were turned away at the door. Watch a video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

Each performance is directly preceded by a lecture sharing historical and musical insights, elevating the event into a learning opportunity. When featuring contemporary works, the pre-concert talk will often include a question-and-answer session with the composer, Festinger said.

Each group also conducts an intensive master class for select SF State students and local ensembles, which is also open to the public. Offering students the chance to receive training from world-renowned musicians is another important method of upholding the series’ mission, Festinger commented.

Here is the full line-up for the 2014-15 season:

·      Sept. 28: Alexander String Quartet

·      Nov. 7: Windscape Wind Quintet

·      Dec. 7: Zofo Piano Duet

·      Feb. 20: Nordic Voices

·      March 15: Lysander Piano Trio with soprano Lucy Shelton

·      April 9: Juilliard String Quartet

·      May 8: Afiara String Quartet

Piano-duo Zofo is based in the Bay Area but has performed across the United States and in Europe and Japan since its inception in 2009.

San Francisco-based Zofo, a Grammy-nominated piano duo, takes the stage on Dec. 7.

Performances will be held in SF State’s 700-seat McKenna Theatre. Festinger said that the SF State campus is a particularly good venue for this type of series. "Part of the ethos of a university is the exploration of ideas and openness to new things, so a concert series on a campus has an obligation to present music that’s not in the mainstream," Festinger remarked. "Because we don’t rely on box-office receipts, we can afford to be a little adventurous."

The concert series is free, but tickets are required. To learn more and reserve tickets, visit:

-- Beth Tagawa