Four Play, More or Less

Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

People have been heard to say, once in a while, that chamber music is an alien art hereabouts, that Los Angeles prefers its music loud. That might have been the case at one time — in the 1980s, say, when the Sequoia Quartet flourished and then foundered, when a brave festival called Chamber Music L.A. started out with large and friendly audiences and then lost them, when the comfort and excellent acoustics of Ambassador Auditorium were reason enough to look forward to an evening of small and subtle sounds — but not reason enough to keep it open.

It would be difficult to corroborate that sentiment now, however. In the last month or so, extraordinary events have taken place in the realm of the small sound. The Kronos Quartet has been in residence at UCLA, with an agreeably messy mixed-media program that drew a big crowd to Royce Hall and, a few nights later, a collaboration with the Merce Cunningham dancers in a work by John Cage. Also at UCLA, the Pacifica Quartet gave its marathon Elliott Carter program, with music hard to like but with poised, fearless playing impossible to resist. The Ardittis came to the County Museum and, as previously noted, conquered. The Penderecki Quartet — Canadian despite its title — returned to LACMA with two thought-provoking programs. The Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society played Ravel and John Adams at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, and, just last week, there was a profoundly delightful program by members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra — the second of three “Conversations” concerts — that drew a capacity crowd to Zipper Hall, fed them on hors d’oeuvres and then on Mozart, Mendelssohn, and bright and lively discourse.

That hall — named for the distinguished Viennese conductor and teacher Herbert Zipper, survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who spent his last years in Los Angeles — has itself been a major cause of the chamber-music upsurge. At 416 seats, it is the perfect size for chamber concerts. The acoustics are embracing; the audience can hear the music making, and so, LACO’s Jeff Kahane reported at this concert, can the players. Last week’s concert was beautifully designed to make people fall in love with music. First there was Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, which Mozart himself claimed to love above all his works (and with good reason). Kahane’s piano for this work was a reconstructed Broadwood instrument from 1829 — already a little late for 1784 chamber music, but marvelous to hear for its clarity and definition and for the way it became part of the ensemble.

Then came other music, less familiar but of comparable delight, Mendelssohn’s B-minor Quartet, for piano and strings: the composer’s Opus 3, dating from his 14th year, rambunctious and exuberant. (“Some brat!” noted Kahane in the post-concert talk.) For this the piano was Zipper’s own Fazioli supermachine. After the concert there was a spirited and extended Q&A that included Kahane, the participants and the man who had rebuilt the old piano. I learned a lot; nobody seemed to want to leave. The whole evening, in fact, could be reckoned a kind of chamber music. Kahane is a treasure, for the way the music warmed him and then for the way he warmed the room. The last “Conversations” program this season is on April 10.

Bela Bartók’s Fourth Quartet concluded the Penderecki Quartet’s first program; Janácek’s Second Quartet concluded the second. Both works were composed in 1928, share some aspects and differ in others. The Bartók paints a landscape, moonlit at times, eerie and tenebrous at others; Count Dracula could be riding by, and his private corpse collection might be dancing and rattling bones. Every measure seems to contain a new way of composing for these four instruments. Janácek paints an interior landscape: the strange torments of an unfulfilled lover caught up in a ménage à trois, hopelessly dreaming of making babies with his mistress, obediently tagging along with that lady and her husband, working off the obvious frustrations in music — and in this work (subtitled “Intimate Letters”) in particular. The music invents no new sounds, as did Bartók; still, it leaves one shaken, sharing in the unrequited longings typified in the final distorted ending that actually ends nothing — except for Janácek himself, who died shortly after completing the work.

The able young Pendereckis played both works with superb intensity — hair-raising, actually, in the Janácek. They began their first program with Vistas, a 1989 work by the Israeli-born Shulamit Ran. Its roots are clear: the augmented seconds and self-flagellating geschrei indigenous in the Hebraic legacy, coupled with a vibrant rhythmic pulse that may be the composer’s own. Canadian Peter Hatch’s Gathered Evidence bears a 2002 date, but apparently wants to resurrect the cute computer and sampler tricks of decades past; it managed to be both brief and overextended. Haydn and Brahms filled out the second program: the Haydn (Opus 3, No. 3) most ingratiating, the Brahms (Opus 67) rather glum. The program notes went into detail to prove that the first quartet was probably not actually by Haydn. Still, if some other composer created music of such charm, with so many original Haydnesque twists, wouldn’t you think there’d be a whole raft of his other great works awaiting discovery? This is the kind of stuff that musicologists buzz over hour after hour; meanwhile, we have this one beautiful work, and that should be enough.

The Philharmonic’s chamber program tied into the John Adams week with the brief China Gates for piano at the start and the nose-thumbing charm of John’s Book of Alleged Dances at the end; Ravel’s A-minor Trio, again rather glumly played, came in the middle. Better than any of this, however, were the Poèmes de Ronsard, a pair of songs for soprano and flute by Albert Roussel, sung by Christine Brandes and by Catherine Ransom’s magic flute: elegant, graceful, intertwined melodies by a little-known French composer of neoclassic bent who’s known, if at all, for his jaunty Third Symphony.

The crowd at Gindi was surprisingly sparse; these chamber concerts used to draw well, especially among the University of Judaism loyalists. Last year the Philharmonic moved the series across the freeway to the Skirball Center’s new Ahmanson Hall, an ugly and uncomfortable venue; the major conversational topic all year was the hall itself. After a year the concerts returned to Gindi, not exactly a palace for the arts, but at least a place where you could get to your seat without cracking a shinbone. Now word needs to re-circulate: Come back, o patrons; the Philharmonic needs you and chamber music needs you!

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