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Chamber format shows strength and weakness

March 22, 2004|James Taylor | Special to The Times

Sometimes less can be more, and sometimes less can be less. Saturday night at Norton Simon Museum Theater, the halves of Southwest Chamber Music's program proved that less can indeed be both.

The Pasadena group's third concert of the season opened with the U.S. premiere of "Hollywood Elegies," a selection of songs written by German composer Hanns Eisler during his exile in Los Angeles.

In its construction, "Elegies" is both more and less. Moritz Gagern has taken Eisler's original "Hollywood Songbook" and transcribed the piano part for four instruments (more) while also re-arranging the order of the songs, trimming many of them, according to the program, to provide "a more concise experience for the listener" (less).

The result: definitely less. Despite the efforts of the Southwest players, the songs lose much of their bite when performed by a chamber quartet. The presence of four instruments on stage suggests a community -- whereas the piano, with its singular presence and range of sound, is much more appropriate for the stark, bitter pieces. Gagern's chamber arrangement makes them sound warm and accessible, as if Eisler were writing about the beach in Malibu instead of the hypocrisy of Hollywood and the solitude of exile.

Much of these songs' power also depends on the vocal part. Soprano Kathleen Roland's singing was technically accomplished, but she did not display much emotion or connection to the material. Roland sang each piece as if it were a pastoral art song -- even if Brecht's lyrics or Eisler's music cried out for sprechstimme. For "Nightmare," a tortured monologue that would feel at home in a Berg opera, Roland sang in a lyric fashion, making it sound like a Carlyle Floyd aria.

Luckily, there was more. After intermission, artistic director Jeff von der Schmidt led a sashimi version of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Downscaling Bruckner to chamber music seems like a terrible idea, but the transcription by Eisler and Karl Rankl for nine instruments sounded surprisingly good in the hands of the Southwest band. Their playing was sometimes a bit ragged, but the big Bruckner melodies were usually articulated with clarity and yes, on occasion, even majesty.

The mighty seventh has confounded many a maestro, but with his unfussy conducting -- and selection of this interesting arrangement -- Von der Schmidt understands that Bruckner's symphonies aren't just about the power of the orchestra; they're about the power of music itself.


Southwest Chamber Music

Where: Zipper Concert Hall, Colburn School of Performing Arts, 200 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.

Price: $10 to $25.

Contact: (800) 726-7147

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