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Southwest Chamber plays rare L.A. quartets

March 28, 2007|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

Among other ideas and projects, Southwest Chamber Music has come up with a new one that definitely hits home -- "The Music of Paradise: Los Angeles From 1915 to 1964."

Not a festival or a one-off concert, this is designed to be a series of retrospectives of music made by local hands that will pop up in spots during the next few seasons. Fittingly, the cutoff point is the year in which the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened, when musical Los Angeles allegedly came of age in the eyes of the world east of San Bernardino.

Southwest Chamber Music could have launched its bright idea Monday night at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall with a clutch of such celebrated names as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Korngold, Krenek, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, even Cage. That would have been the easy road. Instead, we were treated to rare hearings of string quartets by some relatively out-of-fashion figures: William Grant Still, Elinor Remick Warren and Eric Zeisl.

Their backgrounds may have been diverse -- an African American who also wrote for big bands, a woman who led a dual existence as composer and housewife-mother, and a Jewish emigre from Vienna. Yet from the evidence here, they all shared an unwavering, unapologetic faith in old-fashioned Romantic tonality at a time when it was intellectually incorrect to think that way.

Still was represented by his "Danzas de Panama," apparently a breakthrough in its time, yet a piece whose catchy tunes, lush interludes and Latin flavors and chord schemes seem rather tame today.

Warren's Sonnets for Soprano and String Quartet, one of her handful of chamber works, sets four sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay in a flowing, ripened musical language that gives the impression of contentment, though darkening slightly in the Sonnet No. 35. Soprano Elissa Johnston's timbre evoked a bright-eyed sense of wonder -- which sounded right for this music.

Within the conventional, well-crafted four-movement structure of Zeisl's String Quartet No. 2 lurks a stimulating collection of fugues, folk-like tunes and faint klezmer strains. Yet the most gripping section of this piece is the unusual slow movement, where an emotionally affecting prayer played steadily over an ostinato backing. Here is a work that ought to be heard more often.

Perhaps the performances by violinists Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan, violist Jan Carlin and cellist Peter Jacobson would have benefited from more rhythmic vitality -- certainly the Still and parts of the Zeisl. But the basic warmth was present -- and the Zipper's burnished-wood acoustics took it from there.


Southwest Chamber Music

Where: Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Price: $38

Contact: (800) 726-7147; or

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