Lively programming has long been one of the stocks-in-trade of Southwest Chamber Music, which continued its 12th season Saturday night at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena with an engrossing agenda of music by Milhaud, Wadada Leo Smith and Beethoven, splendidly played.
The focus of interest was the world premiere performance of Smith's String Quartet No. 3, subtitled "Black Church: A First World Gathering of the Spirit." The work is dense, tense, often grim, atonal to a fault. Except that it moves steadily and compellingly toward its musical closing--thus ending an abundance of alienation and hostility--this one-movement piece, a tight quarter-hour in length, is neither likable nor accessible.
Yet it holds the listener, who keeps waiting for the clouds to part, with a strong attraction. It is a non-contrapuntal, non-narrative, free-flowing lyric statement, and it operates under a pall of pessimism. Whatever the title means--and the composer, before the performance, related it to the important community of churchgoing in our culture--the listening experience seems only abstract.
Smith, a multitalented hyphenate who comes from the world of jazz performance and composition but has spread his wings in a number of other musical areas, has written an uncategorizable work worth further hearings.
The Southwest string quartet--violinists Agnes Gottschewski and Christine Frank (who alternate as principal), violist Jan Karlin and cellist Maggie Edmondson--gave the new work a full-out, emotional performance. Admirably, they did the same for the program-closer, Beethoven's E-minor "Rasumovsky" Quartet, Opus 59, No. 2.
Milhaud's jazzily unbuttoned "La Creation du monde," which began the program, needed further unbuttoning to make all its points, yet it was delivered gamely by the four strings, performing with pianist Susan Svrcek.