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A Musical Experiment in a City of Science

Southwest Chamber Music programs an inventive mix of old and new for receptive audiences in Pasadena.

September 17, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD

Running a chamber music organization can be a dangerous business, prone to perilous fiscal dips and wavering faith. On the other hand, when it works, it can work wonders. A solid local case in point: Southwest Chamber Music, which for 13 years has emphasized contemporary and cutting-edge music without forgetting comfy-chair standard repertory--and prospered.

The question naturally arises: How do they do it?

For one thing, if you ask the powers that be, they're in the right place.

"L.A. is a great place for pioneers," asserts artistic director and co-founder Jeffrey von der Schmidt. "It's respected for that. And Pasadena is one of the great science cities in the world. Most of our support comes from a couple of key people who have associations with Caltech. With that audience base, why go out and play your typical tour program of Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven? I have nothing against all that music. I have something against it when it becomes a convention."

For Southwest Chamber Music, this is a year of thinking big. Its concert season, which opens this weekend in the newly renovated theater of the Norton Simon Museum, goes by the title "The Universe: Music of the Spheres," and synchronizes with a Pasadena-wide festival, "The Universe," which celebrates the interaction of the arts and sciences in the city.

This is also the season when Southwest Chamber releases an ambitious 12-CD package called "Composer Portrait Series," on the Cambria label, which effectively chronicles its story thus far. Numbers speak: 17 composers are represented by a total of 47 compositions, including 25 world premieres written for Southwest Chamber Music.

While the group performs in various locales outside of Pasadena--each program is repeated in L.A., since 1998, at the Zipper Hall of the Colburn School--its hometown presence is key to its identity. This season's move to the Norton Simon Museum theater--which had been dark for 25 years--after originally performing in the Pasadena Library and then in the Pasadena Presbyterian Church for many years, is something of a milestone and a symbol of its local link. Von Der Schmidt says, "I know there are a lot of members of our board and people in the community who were not going to rest until we performed there."

"The Universe" festival, which opens in fuller flower early next year, is a collaboration of Southwest Chamber, Armory Center for the Arts, Art Center College of Design, Caltech, the Huntington Library, the Norton Simon Museum, One Colorado and the Pacific Asia Museum. The theme is a particularly good fit for Southwest--and not just because its supporters are scientists.

Again, says Von Der Schmidt, it's about location. "Pasadena is home to some of the most important scientific exploration and theories of the 20th century," he notes. "Edmund Hubble designed the now-accepted theory of the shape of the universe about four blocks from my home, in his office at the Carnegie Institute on Santa Barbara Street. It was from the telescope on Mt. Wilson, which was the largest telescope of the era, where he was able to develop the theory of how the galaxies were in recession from us and moving away from us at a certain rate of speed. Here in Pasadena, his papers are housed at the Huntington."

And then there's the music-science connection--especially when it comes to Southwest's specialty, contemporary work. "I think it's a good time," Von Der Schmidt said, "to look at the relationship of science and music. It has a lot to do with creating a reconciliation for the audience and the public with the music of the 20th century. To be able to look at the general public and say, 'John Cage was not trying to put one over on you with chance. Schoenberg was not trying to put one over on you with the serial universe. [Ernst] Krenek was not trying to put one over on you when he wrote "Sestina," with all its rotational devices.'

"In the 19th century, composers had a relationship to landscape. In the 20th century, that relationship changes to space. This comes out of the Renaissance, as well. Music was important as a proportional measurement of space. Music proved the [proportionality] of numbers by the relationship between intervals. What happened in the 20th century was that that proportion, simply put, expands."

When Von Der Schmidt, a horn player, his wife, violist Jan Karlin, and pianist Albert Dominguez--who died in 1994-- started the group in 1987, they were trying to fill a perceived void in the regional chamber music scene.

"You had Piatagorsky and Heifetz doing chamber music," remembers Karlin, the group's executive director, "but it wasn't something that was really an ensemble, in a chamber music sense, where people work together all the time. Looking around, I thought, 'There's so much you can do if you have a resident ensemble in the community.' "

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