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Music Review

Southwest Chamber's Small Step a Giant Leap

September 25, 2000|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Music and science have had a fling for as long as the known history of music. Ancient Greeks made music with help of Pythagorean principles, and composers and theorists since have often turned to the physical world and what is known, or believed, about it for ideas and inspiration. Scientists, equally, are drawn to sound. "If I were not a physicist," Einstein said, "I would be a musician."

Einstein's quote is the motto for the Southwest Chamber Music's new season, which began Saturday night. It is devoted to matching music to "The Universe," a large-scale festival of art and science in Pasadena this season. Pasadena-based Southwest Chamber Music is full of great ambitions and never short on ideas. Its exciting "Universe" is a place where futuristic modern composers, mystics, astrologists and ancients find common ground with many of the standard names in music.

But the very imaginativeness of this project also reminds us of the most curious aspect in the attraction of scientists to music: Seldom do they turn to music for new quests, but rather as refuge from their own workday questing. Einstein was friends with Schoenberg but not his music--he adored Mozart and Schubert, whom he played on the violin, by all accounts quite poorly. At Caltech, the concert programming is among the most banal in the Southland.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 26, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 3 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
Concert review--A review of Southwest Chamber Music's season-opening concert in Monday's Calendar incorrectly stated the number of CDs in the ensemble's new boxed set; the correct number is 12. It also misidentified the "Kandinsky Variations" composer; William Kraft composed the work. The review, which also covered the group's move to a new venue in Pasadena, implied that its former regular Pasadena venue was the Armory Center for the Arts; instead, it was the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. The Armory Center for the Arts has been an occasional concert venue for Southwest Chamber, and it continues to be the site of the ensemble's Open Rehearsal series.

Saturday's opener thus proved a relatively gentle blastoff into unknown worlds. The two main pieces were classics from early in the century: Darius Milhaud's jazz ballet, "The Creation of the World," and Schoenberg's Surrealist masterpiece, "Pierrot Lunaire."

The concert also boasted a further kindness. Southwest Chamber, which previously performed its Pasadena series on folding chairs in a gallery space at the Armory Center for the Arts, now has a posh new hall at the Norton Simon Museum. A theater that had been unused for 20 years has been renovated. Its seats are plush; its stage, large; its configuration as wide as it is deep--it feels almost like an executive studio screening room. Gone is the musical immediacy of sitting in the midst of performers, as was enjoyed at the Armory; in its place are comfort, pleasing acoustics and the pleasure of intermission strolls among the Simon collection.

The contrast between the Milhaud and the Schoenberg was full of fascinations. In order to depict the novelty of a newly created world, Milhaud, in 1922, turned to African creation myths and illustrated them with the newest music, namely jazz. The century's first great crossover score, it was the perfect refreshment from the two works that had defined the century's creation of new musical worlds a decade earlier--Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Schoenberg's "Pierrot."

In "Pierrot," Schoenberg did what the quantum scientists do today: He removed all that is familiar to us, all that grounds us to the world we think we know. In his score--a setting of fantastical poems in which a moon-drunk Harlequin becomes a conduit for revealing pure, wild, sexually aroused emotion--nothing is as it previously seemed. Song and speech are confused; the music is so highly charged that sound effects and melody are inseparable.

Performances by Southwest Chamber do not always live up to the interest of the programming, although a remarkable new 120-CD set that the society has just issued suggests that, under the right conditions, the playing can be reliably strong. On Saturday, the Milhaud lacked some of its allure as played in an arrangement for piano and string quartet, rather than the jazzy original version for 17 solo instruments with a prominent saxophone part. But, appropriate to the science connection, this version and its strict performance did reveal some of the intriguing inner workings of a score often only appreciated for its jazziness.

"Pierrot" featured the soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who recited/sang it from memory, and did so masterfully. She is not as dramatic as a singer can be in this role, but she casts a spell. Jeff von der Schmidt, the ensemble's artistic director, conducted the five instrumentalists in a carefully laid out interpretation. "Pierrot" is most striking when each player is striking; in this case there were two standouts--the bracing flutist Dorothy Stone and the characterful clarinetist, Jim Foschia.

In between, and in recognition of the new concert setting, Stone, violist Jan Karlin and pianist Gayle Blankenburg, gave an enjoyably decorative and fanciful interpretation of Robert Kraft's "Kandinsky Variations." The piece is a graph score from the 1970s visually inspired by Kandinsky, allowing the performers improvisatory freedom. And the fact that this indeterminate music will never sound remotely the same the second time around also served as a nice musical reminder of the sheer uncertainty that is at the heart of science and that we tend to experience every time we peer up into the night sky.

* Southwest Chamber Music repeats this program in its Los Angeles series Tuesday at 8 p.m., $10-$25, at the Herbert Zipper Concert Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave. (800) 726-7147.

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