Ah, chamber music under the moon, the natural cap to the Memorial Day weekend! That unlikely thought became reality Monday, when Ima Concerts drew a sizable crowd to the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre against the odds, opening the new "Summer Nights at the Ford" series.
Chamber music and amphitheater are not words that usually go together, but the Ford has had a history of chamber music, at least since 1987. That has been made possible by an attractive and functional shell designed by acoustician Abe Meltzer, which projects a healthy amount of often rather raw sound.
Violinist and Ima Concerts director Yoko Matsuda took due notice of the disparity between site and sound. She told the audience (after short introductory speeches by Laura Zucker, executive director of the Music and Performing Arts Commission, and County Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman, and before cellist Robert Martin's preface to the first piece--sigh) that Ima means \o7 living room\f7 in Japanese, and made the optimistic comparison that relative to the Hollywood Bowl across the freeway, the 1,200-seat Ford, with 452 in attendance, really was practically a living room.
Few living rooms are exposed to the kind of extracurricular noise the Ford is, however. In addition to the steady hum of the freeway traffic, cheerful bird songs and some intrusive sounds from the food service area, the music was victimized by at least 10 fly-by aerial assaults.
Add in the tuning traumas common in outdoor concerts and a whiff of skunk as the final indignity, and a problematic evening was guaranteed, despite benign weather and a lovely moon.
The performances, alas, did not rise above the distractions. The reunion of three-quarters of the much-loved Sequoia Quartet--Martin and violinists Matsuda and Miwako Watanabe, joined here by violist Steven Tenenbom--elicited nothing special on behalf of Mendelssohn's E-flat String Quartet, Opus 12, No. 1, a piece that really needs persuasive exposition.
Instead we heard scattered ensemble, patchy intonation and contradictory phrasing. Only in the gentle Andante espressivo did the playing cohere into something faintly magical.
Matters improved only slightly in Dvorak's Terzetto in C, Opus 74, attractive music not often heard. Matsuda, Watanabe and Tenenbom underplayed the polymetrical implications of the pivotal Scherzo, while chopping up the main theme with heavily accented, detached exaggeration. They also left the difficult rhetorical flourishes of the Theme and Variations finale unconvincingly integrated.
Interpretively, at least, they saved the best for last. Weber's Clarinet Quintet, Opus 34, is the sort of bravura, faux-Rossini that can succeed outdoors, which it did brilliantly here, thanks to the skills of Michele Zukovsky, principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She drove the piece with extroverted flair, supporting the virtuoso noodling with unflappable breath control and imaginative use of a wide timbral range. The four string players accompanied her effectively.