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Gladly hitting the road

Three awe-inspiring pieces in different Southland venues gave chamber lovers reason to fight traffic.

March 20, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Three pieces of chamber music have halos above them. An aura of reverence surrounds Beethoven's late soul-searching String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, and Schubert's otherworldly C-major String Quintet. The third is Shostakovich's 15th and final string quartet, his this-time-he-really-meant-it farewell to a life of terrible inner and outer turmoil.

In the curiously coincidental chamber-music weekend just past, a transcendence seeker had all three works available within relatively easy driving distance. Friday night, Rohan de Saram, a Sri Lankan cellist and former member of the Arditti Quartet, offered a strange program at REDCAT. The first half was of amazing recent pieces. The second was a performance of the Schubert quintet played by four string players from CalArts with De Saram taking on the extra cello part.

Saturday night at the Samueli Theater -- the vibrant new chamber space at the Orange County Performing Arts Center -- the young Calder Quartet took on Shostakovich's quartet, which is a stream of unrelentingly grim adagios. It was heard amid Christopher Rouse's aggressive, Bartokian First String Quartet, written in 1982, and Ravel's only string quartet, which charmed Paris 80 years earlier.

Then, Sunday afternoon, the much-admired Takacs Quartet, founded 37 years ago in Budapest, Hungary, appeared in the 103-year-old Coleman Chamber Concerts series, which uses Caltech's circus-tent-like, acoustically dry Beckman Auditorium for its presentations. Beethoven's Opus 131 ended a program that began with the composer's "Harp" Quartet and featured additional mournful Shostakovich -- the String Quartet No. 11.

Transcendence, the weekend revealed, is not easy to find and is rarely where you expect it.

De Saram's appearance at REDCAT, which is CalArts' wonderful black-box space at Walt Disney Concert Hall, was essentially a new music event with the addition of the Schubert Quintet. The theater was nearly full. The program's solo pieces, by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Roger Reynolds and Iannis Xenakis, written between 1977 and 2002, extend the possibilities of the cello, and De Saram brought magnificence to each. Berio's Sequenza XIV, written for De Saram and premiered in Los Angeles in 2003, three months before the great Italian composer's death, is a study in Ceylonese drum rhythms given a veritable Beethovenian makeover.

But extraordinary as the new music sounded, Schubert's Quintet, performed by ad hoc players, couldn't stand on the laurels of one terrific cellist. The glow, here, was harsh, the byproduct of poor intonation.

The Calder's Shostakovich, by contrast, sounded superb. The 350-seat Samueli is a chamber-music dream machine. Its acoustic is so lively that a listener almost feels onstage with the performers. And this ensemble, which splits its time between residencies at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and the Juilliard School in New York, is fully prepared for the world stage.

The Calder's sound is American -- big, bold, firm, clean. I don't think Shostakovich would have liked the way his quartet was played, but I did very much.

Vibrato was kept to a reasonable level. The Calder did not drag out the adagios, and it did not tug at the heartstrings. Rather, it gave intensity to the notes themselves. Whether players barely out of the conservatory should already be focusing on death-haunted music is their business. But I thank them for taking the extreme morbidity out of Shostakovich's 15th Quartet and revealing what brilliant music it is.

The sad part of this concert, which included a gripping account of Rouse's quartet and a gorgeous one of Ravel's, was the audience at OCPAC. I doubt that the theater was half full. But I have little doubt that the reason was typical OCPAC overpricing. All seats were $52.

Tickets for the far more famous Takacs at Beckman averaged less than half that (with seats for anyone 18 or younger down to $10), and the large hall was, of course, full (REDCAT's range was $10 to $20). The problem here is that Beckman was built for lectures, and even if you sit close to the stage, the music sounds distant and uninvolving.

Takacs has a wiry tone, which would have benefited greatly from someplace chamber-music-friendly. But the quartet's is also a wired sound, which means that like an electric current, Takacs can cut through whatever acoustical barriers it needs to cut through.

Two original members of the ensemble -- its second violinist and cellist -- remain. Violist Geraldine Walther joined two years ago. The group's first woman, she must bring something fresh to the playing, and maybe in a better hall that would be apparent. At Caltech, she blended in perfectly. The Takacs was still the Takacs.

The quartet's Beethoven is not overly bold, but the flow of Opus 131 was magical. And the rhythmic incisiveness the Takacs brought to Shostakovich's 11th Quartet, played almost like Bartok, offered a different sort of transcendence altogether. The score is a mordant memorialization of a string quartet player. Takacs made that a thrill.


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