Blame the earthquake for a sparse turnout at the Newport Harbor Art Museum on Saturday night. Those few without fear of aftershocks were rewarded with string playing of a high order from members of the Southwest Chamber Music Society.
The ambitious and adventurous program provided tremors of a musical sort in Wuorinen's String Quartet No. 3 (1987). This knotty yet cohesive work may well daunt those accustomed to a modern diet of saccharine minimalism. It may have daunted the players a bit too, from the look of it: Erstwhile horn player Jeff von der Schmidt essayed the role of conductor.
But from the sound of it, violinists Jacqueline Brand and Kimiyo Takeya, violist Jan Karlin and cellist Richard Treat played with far more confidence with Schmidt directing.
Having received its Los Angeles premiere Friday night in a Pasadena performance by the same forces, the single-movement work makes demands on the listener nearly as great as on the players. Based on a Gregorian chant, the non-programatic work moves quickly from a fireball opening to a passage where the notes of the chant are compressed into a cluster.
The gradual emergence of the chant proper is the key event around which the other parts of the piece turn. The thickets of notes, in what is overall a slow movement that rarely pauses, can tire even the dedicated listener. But clearly the players had both the technical resources and the commitment to do the work justice.
Loosed from modern terrors, the quartet took flight in an exuberant reading of Ravel's Quartet in F.
Brand's sweet sound literally set the tone for an opening movement of surging climaxes and suave interplay. The scherzo brought brief lapses of intonation and ensemble but emerged with its spirit intact.
Minus Brand, the remaining trio opened the proceedings with a stimulating reading of Peter Warlock's arrangement of Three Fantasias by Henry Purcell.