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Ensemble Brings Schnittke's Haunting Works Vividly to Life


LA JOLLA — Alfred Schnittke's music functions on the edges of consciousness and society. Death, for the German Russian dissident composer who died last year at 63 after a long illness, was a constant theme. But as with Mahler, whose musical heir Schnittke more and more seems, the obsession with death could mean looking intently at the peculiarities of life.

Listening to his music at a memorial concert given by San Diego New Music on Sunday night, I was reminded of the way that death, like art, so often directs our attention to the details we take for granted. A fly or a flower can suddenly become all-compelling at a graveside.

It helps to hear Schnittke on the edges. In Soviet Russia, the impact of his scores was made all the more potent by the dangerous nature of their performances in intimate, out-of-the-way venues. Sunday's program captured this quality of music operating as a parallel reality exceptionally well in the intimate setting of the Athenaeum. This 100-year-old private arts library is an intellectual haven in the center of an upscale beach community. And this program of serious, intense, vehement, eerie, bizarre, glaring and often disconsolate music really grabbed the attention when heard in the company of rapt players and listeners just around the corner from sandy beaches, and emporiums of expensive jewelry and bottomless pitchers of margaritas.

The concert began fittingly with "Praeludium: In Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich," a short, mysterious work for two violins from 1975, and it included the great, darkly meditative Quintet, for piano and strings, written the next year in reaction to the deaths of the composer's mother and brother from stroke. Two late pieces, "Five Aphorisms," for piano, and presumably the first U.S. performance of the Third Violin Sonata (although next Monday's at Lincoln Center with the composer's widow is being billed as an American premiere), are severe and moody in the extreme. The composer himself had, by then, become remote and weakened by strokes.

But gloomy as this sounds, there can also be in Schnittke a wake-up call to living in the moment. A single violin tremolo hangs in the air like a butterfly fluttering its wings, and then is suddenly gone. A piano chord rings likes bells in the distance, summoning us. These notes, if we can get close enough to their remarkable intensities, startle and compel. And getting close requires two things: physical proximity to the sound and players who can make sounds seem alive.

Both of those qualities were present Sunday. The musicians were extraordinary. Mark Menzies was the riveting violinist in the Third Sonata and just as powerful and concentrated a pianist in the "Five Aphorisms" (he also would have been a harpsichordist if a soprano's illness hadn't forced the cancellation of "Three Madrigals"). Vera Lukomsky was the pianist in the Sonata and she also joined Menzies in Schnittke's otherworldly setting of "Silent Night"; and she too captured the sheer visceral power of this music.

Also effective were musicians from UC San Diego who participated in the Quintet as well as the vivid violinist David Ryther, who joined Menzies in the one lighter Schnittke work on the program, "Moz-Art," a surrealistic collage of Mozartean fragments. But, as is often the case with Schnittke, he is, in his humor, strangely not entirely of this world, just as he is in his haunted work, strangely very much of it.

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