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MUSIC REVIEW : Southwest Society Plays It Too Conservatively


ORANGE — The Southwest Chamber Music Society has frequently demonstrated its commitment to 20th-Century music. So far, this season has seen two U.S. premieres, with still another U.S. premiere--Sofia Gubaidulina's "Quasi Hoquetus"--and one world premiere--Charles Wuorinen's "A Winter's Tale"--in the offing. Results have often been exciting.

On Thursday night, at Salmon Recital Hall on the campus of Chapman University, the outcome proved more frustrating than exhilarating.

Violinist Sheryl Staples, pianist Gloria Cheng and cellist Roger Lebow conquered technical challenges almost without fail but repeatedly shied away from important decisions regarding direction, voicing and, especially, content.

Shostakovich's Piano Trio in E minor, written in 1944 as a wrenching memorial to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky and to all who had died in the Nazi death camps, should be biting, relentless, uneasy. On this occasion, however, speed and volume predominated, all amid a clean, overly refined atmosphere. The Scherzo flew by with barely a hint of foreboding. The opening chords of the Largo marched perfunctorily, stoic instead of lamenting. The movement--potentially an agonizing dirge--fell flat, squelched by insufficient color and inflection.

Only in the Finale did the three musicians find their mark, deftly shifting moods, led by Lebow's spine-tingling plunge into this macabre dance as the trio built toward a shattering triple forte.

Ravel's "Tzigane" suffered from a similar interpretive conservatism. Here, Staples applied her biting tone and technical prowess to a disjunctive, metronomic performance, impossibly removed from the sensual flexibility of gypsy tunes.

John Harbison's Piano Sonata (which the composer's program notes calls No. 1, implying that another will follow) contributed an intrinsic coldness, although Cheng brought an intelligent sensitivity to bear on it. Nevertheless, for all its quixotic daydreaming, its virtuosic muscle-flexing and its jazzy rhythms, the work remains overwhelmingly cerebral.

Staples kicked off the evening nervously with Chausson's "Poeme," Opus 25. Following a precarious, raspy-toned beginning, she did rally for some gutsy flights of fancy. Cheng offered reliable, subdued partnership.

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