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Music Review

Brentano proves bracing, brainy

March 17, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Nowhere does the civilized Old World meet the scientific New World quite the way it does at Sundays With Coleman, the Pasadena chamber music series that began in 1904 and has for many years now been held at Caltech. The audience tends to be mature and distinguished. A number of languages are heard at intermission. The sum of the patrons' IQs on Sunday afternoon at an exhilaratingly brainy program by the Brentano String Quartet and Peter Serkin was, no doubt, astronomical.

Beckman Auditorium, where the concerts are held, may be inadequately intimate, but it has other virtues. It was designed as a public lecture hall, and I always feel a buzz when entering it, given how many ideas have ricocheted around its red and white walls and gold dome since it opened in 1964. Poor though the acoustics are for chamber music, the voice of the great physicist Richard Feynman carried just fine in this space, as unfortunately did his bongo playing.

Sunday's program provided much pleasure for a clever countrapuntalist -- that is, a listener who might enjoy understanding the complex way strands of Haydn's Quartet in D minor, Opus 76, No. 2, or of Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge" (Great Fugue) fit together like musical DNA. These were the works that began and ended the afternoon.

In between, Serkin joined the strings for a recent piano quintet by Charles Wuorinen, a pesky composer known for his impatience with insufficiently intellectual critics and listeners. Pianist and quartet were also joined by baritone Dean Elzinga for Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon," a potent, knotty setting of Byron's withering attack on authoritarian rule.

The Brentano, formed in 1992 and currently in residence at Princeton, played with sober attention to detail. The ensemble's tone is not large, but it is admirably focused. The players do not lack energy or power or passion, but they trust the music and don't try to persuade an audience with theatrics.

For instance, in Haydn's quartet, nicknamed "Quinten" (Fifths), the interval of the fifth is intricately woven throughout the first movement. And Sunday the work was treated as a storehouse of contrapuntal delights, with the players -- violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Maria Lee -- acting as genial gamesters.

For all his contrapuntal cunning, Haydn didn't hide his wit. Wuorinen, however, does. I wouldn't have minded a skeleton key for his Second Piano Quintet, which was written last year for the Brentano and Serkin. It lasts 24 minutes, with alternating fast and slow movements. It is complex throughout. And on first hearing, it went over my head, and I suspect those of many others.

Wuorinen does have an ear as well as an intellect. In the quintet, he takes advantage of devoted performers, and the committed playing was, in its own right, compelling. The ringing sonorities in the slow fourth movement made a rapturous sound before the third movement sneaked back in and ended the piece with a strong flourish.

If any case needs to be made for cerebral music having the capacity to be immediately provocative and stimulating, Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon," written in Los Angeles during the Second World War, could be Exhibit A. Byron's angry denunciation of "a bigot's shrine" and "despot's throne" gave Schoenberg a text for depicting Hitler. A baritone declaims the poem in speech-song; the lines are rhythmically determined, but pitches are spoken rather than sung.

Elzinga brought out the Schoenbergian range of outrage against tyranny with great immediacy. Meanwhile, Serkin and the Brentano operated in a different sphere. Schoenberg's music is ever changing on the surface, and in nearly every measure these players found something different. The deepest subject matter must be examined from as many angles as possible, and here tyranny was turned this way and that, although always leading to the same conclusion. The performance will not soon be forgotten.

In the "Grosse Fuge," Beethoven simply broke the bounds of what had seemed contrapuntally or rhythmically possible in 1825. The fugue was a century ahead of its time. It astonishes still. No ensemble can keep its cool playing it. The Brentano served the mind, the body and the spirit.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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