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Southwest knows how to enjoy summer

The chamber ensemble delivers with early Beethoven and a Phuc Linh U.S. premiere at the Huntington.

July 09, 2007|Michael Rydzynski | Special to The Times

The mere mention of Southwest Chamber Music raises expectations. This locally based ensemble, now 20 years old, has won two Grammys in recent years for recordings of music by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, and over the weekend it began its annual Summer Festival, a series of four concerts, each given twice, at the Huntington Library's small Garden Terrace.

Lighted by floor lamps that gave an intimate, homey feel to the proceedings, the setting Saturday was ripe for music-making of the highest order. And the concert (first performed Friday) did not disappoint, even with a program of somewhat uneven quality.

The centerpiece was Beethoven's Septet in E-flat major for Winds and Strings, Opus 20. This early (1799-1800) work, whose popularity Beethoven eventually grew to loathe, received an exquisite, tight-knit interpretation. Led much of the way by the sturdy, assured playing of violinist Lorenz Gamma, the performance also featured vividly rendered countermelodies by clarinetist Jim Foschia (in the second and final movements).

Brilliantly executed instrumental exchanges abounded, especially in the fourth movement, as between Gamma and cellist Peter Jacobson (first variation) and Foschia and bassoonist Allen Savedoff (third). All the musicians -- who included violist Jan Karlin, double-bassist Tom Peters and horn player James Atkinson -- contributed to the structure and strength of a work that clocked in at a hefty 44 minutes. After 200-plus years, the septet can still charm, particularly when performed by musicians of this caliber.

Southwest also gave the American premiere of a Vietnamese work, the result of a residency in December in Vietnam and Cambodia. While at the Hanoi National Conservatory in the Vietnamese capital, the ensemble met music professor Phuc Linh and came away with his delightful 7 1/2 -minute Suite, a fairy tale about dreamer and poetry lover Tu Thuc, who finds his ideal mate in the angel of poetry. Each movement is based on a Vietnamese folk song from a different part of the country.

Artistic director Jeff von der Schmidt conducted with verve a septet of violinist Shalini Vijayan, flutist Lawrence Kaplan, Foschia, Gamma, Karlin, Jacobson and Peters. Gamma again had the lion's share of the melodic lead, with Jacobson coming through with a very rich sound in the second movement. The performance as a whole had a pleasant, unrushed quality.

The program opened with Walter Piston's Quintet for Flute and Strings. The 1942 work has a rather dry, academic feel (Piston taught at Harvard for 24 years). Nonetheless, the Southwest musicians gave it their best in a 21-minute account. Kaplan took a quiet yet firm lead with a solid command of phrasing, even in the brief, pyrotechnic-less cadenza. The strings, limited to bowing and pizzicato, nonetheless distinguished themselves, with various fugato passages flawlessly rendered.

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