As I sat in Herbst Theater last night awaiting the appearance of clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and guitarist Eliot Fisk, my mind wandered to the analogy of food and wine. With an abundance of delectable cuisine and fine wine across the world, the combination of such pairings are endless. However, the choice requires special consideration, and can be the difference between a superb dining experience and an unsatisfactory one. Having never experienced such a unique program as that presented Saturday night by Chamber Music San Francisco, I wondered if this would prove to be a successful pairing.

The audience members in attendance were visibly and audibly excited by the appearance of Stoltzman and Fisk, both of whom are major stars in their respective fields. The first piece that they presented was a duet of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, a work which exists in numerous incarnations in solo, chamber and orchestral form. Unfortunately, I was not convinced by this particular version. Much of the rustic charm was lost by nature of the arrangement and the performance itself felt much too timid. At times, I had difficultly hearing the melodies as they passed confusingly from the single line of the clarinet, eventually emerging out of a more involved guitar line. Where the piece excelled were the more subtle moments, particularly the ethereal combination of guitar harmonics and the shrouded sound of the clarinet’s higher range.

The following work was another arrangement, this time featuring selected Violin Duetti by Luciano Berio. Despite being well known for his more experimental music, particularly his numbered Sequenzas for solo instrument, this piece began with a tonal opening. It was here that I began to appreciate the nuances of the guitar and clarinet pairing. Both performers played with the lightness that these instruments are so often attributed with. The Berio with whom we are more familiar began to appear in the later movements, where the piece required a harsher, directer tone in addition to a greater freedom of playing. I often felt that the difference in timbre between the instruments did not match this change in mood, and felt relieved when the piece returned to the style of the genial opening movement.

The first half concluded with two solos, the first of which was Fisk’s own arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C major. The cello suites are yet another selection of works arranged for a variety of different instruments, but this was much more effective than the Bartók. As with Bach’s works for lute, the arrangement lent itself well to the flexibility and sensitivity of the guitar, and was enhanced greatly by Fisk’s beautifully serene and unfussy playing. I was particularly impressed by his forward momentum, often taking his time but never overindulging.

Stoltzman concluded the first half with New York Counterpoint by Steve Reich, which was perhaps the highlight of the program. There was an alluring historical authenticity about the performance, by the sheer fact that it was being performed by the clarinetist for whom it had originally been written. From its worn and browned appearance, he seemed to be reading from his original manuscript too. New York Counterpoint is a relentless piece for eleven clarinets (including four bass clarinets), and here, Stoltzman used the tape version in which he had previously recorded all of the remaining ten parts himself. His choreographed performance brought out many different shades of this minimalist piece with repeated notes creeping out of nowhere, increasing in dynamic as the bell of his instrument rose and fell, waving slowly across the audience like a magic wand. The tape seemed to be a little low in volume, but towards the end, the intensity was matched throughout the jazzier section and the piece ended with assuredness.

By the end of the shorter second half, I had all but formed my opinion of this type of instrumental combination. More commonly performed with flute, Robert Beaser’s Mountain Songs were the epitome of geniality. Even the livelier, jazzy sections of the inner movements were effective in their simplicity. The writing served the instrumentation and did not ask too little or too much of what was needed. And whilst the final piece was from an entirely different period, Rossini’s Aria, Theme and Variations was yet another indicator of the simplicity in which these two instruments excel. The piece was fun, joyous and unassuming and it was in these types of pieces that the combination succeeded most effectively.

Returning to my initial analogy of food and wine, I was pleasantly surprised – but had it not been for the company of master performers Stoltzman and Fisk, I might have found it a little too bland and unappetizing. Even still, I could not help but feel a slight emptiness in my stomach from tonight’s menu and despite leaving the hall late into the evening, I still felt the need to tuck into a large, succulent steak.