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Savoring the upside as Southwest goes outside

July 23, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Set foot into the Southland's outdoor music venues on a fine summer's eve and within seconds you know exactly what part of the world you are in. Your senses go into action.

The sudden sight of the Bowl's shell, and your brain registers Hollywood. Your skin picks up the softness of the air. Try a concert at Descanso Gardens, and the fragrance is pure Southern California. Bring a picnic and likely it will include some local produce.

Only our ears are deceived. Music from these parts or anywhere East is exceedingly rare alfresco. No tiki lights or exotic cocktails in sound in the summer, but for, of all places, the formal Huntington Library, where Southwest Chamber Music performs.

Friday night's program included California ingredients along with a few imported from France. Lou Harrison -- whose home was in Aptos, near Santa Cruz, for most of his life and whose tastes often ran to Asia -- was represented by his exquisite short Suite for Cello and Harp in the first half. It was surrounded by Debussy's "Syrinx" for solo flute and Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, pieces with hints of distant climes. Berio's "Folk Songs," written during the Italian composer's residence at Mills College in the '60s and premiered on the Oakland campus, made up the second half.

Harrison's suite happened to be written in New York in 1949. Its tone is elegiac, especially in the sensuously heart-rending chorale that opens and closes it. The composer, just over a nervous breakdown, was California dreaming. Cellist Peter Jacobson played with passion, and more intensity perhaps than needed for lyrical music that sells itself. Harpist Andrea Puente had the misfortune of a lovely cooling breeze, changing her instrument's tuning. But beauty prevailed.

Lawrence Kaplan was flutist for Debussy. "Syrinx," was, for Debussy, ancient Greece dreaming, with Pan's world sometimes evoked as a harsh landscape. Kaplan's fluid, seamless playing was sweet, nostalgic. The Sonata, from the end of Debussy's life, is formal yet fleeting, as if the French composer were both of his world and leaving it. Asian overtones are unmistakable, and the trio (violist Jan Karlin joined Kaplan and Puente) captured that tension.

Berio's "Folk Songs" shocked the new music world, and to some extent changed it, in 1964. The traditional songs -- from America, Armenia, France, Italy, Azerbaijan -- are left pretty much alone. But a small chamber ensemble weaves an avant-gardish sonic trellis around them. Nothing is too far out, but the contrast was something new. The songs are often battles of the sexes; Berio wrote them for the phenomenal soprano Cathy Berberian, whom he was just divorcing. There is, under the friendly surface, anger and fire -- and biting humor. The settings are masterpieces.

Elissa Johnston, Friday's soprano, did not try to match Berberian's overt sexuality or drama in her performance. She relied on sweetness -- in tone and manner. Jeff von der Schmidt, Southwest's artistic director, conducted, and his attention seemed mostly directed at bringing to the fore Berio's unique and amazing sound world.

The combination made the accessible piece, Berio's most popular, appear, even today, cutting-edge and mysterious. If Johnston didn't dominate, she did convey the different character of each song while letting her voice rise and fall from instrumental textures.

"Folk Songs" could not have been written anywhere else, in 1964, than California, at a distance from the rule makers of the European avant-garde. Berio felt, I think, as though he was getting away with murder. But this performance, in its attention to Berio's sound rather than his theatrics, revealed the timeless and, to an extent, stateless essence of the settings. Once more, beauty prevailed.

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