Prologue… Notes from a reviewer
Lately I have been reviewing concert dance performances. But, having gone to an excellent music school and studied violin for many years at Dartmouth and various chamber music centers, I also know something about the music world. I recently heard the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra play Souvenir de Florence in an orchestral setting. They played it without a conductor. Add basses and multiply the ensemble--voilà, you have quite a different sort of piece. Several years ago in Los Angeles I saw Malashock Dance in a concert version of Souvenir with his small company. He created a memorable piece from music that doesn't strike you as particularly favorable for dance. I am always impressed when choreographers take on big music. I've looked at it as a way of measuring up. And while composing new music for dance is important, so much of the new sidesteps real music making in favor of scores that can be generated by looping, mixing, or sampling on a computer. I've also seen more than enough live music for dance which has been terribly disappointing. Frequently on dance programs I have seen music credits listed as--music: Bach-- as if it makes no difference which of the thousand pieces it might be. It that tells me that some see music as incidental and a kind of vague contribution to the dancing. It's not. I keep hoping that both dancers and choreographers will make the effort to listen to more classical music, either live or recorded. It's an irritating term, “classical music” but the label persists. There are still such great opportunities to make new dance using these resources. It's good for dance and it's good for music too. And since so much of playing beautifully is itself a matter of physical gesture, it's never really very far from dance anyway.
It was dueling afternoon concerts in downtown Los Angeles. Your choices, big orchestra or big chamber music. At Disney Hall Dudamel and the Phil were finishing their week of Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, a sprawling orchestral composition with plenty of extras. At Colburn's Zipper Concert Hall across the street, the Tokyo String Quartet in collaboration with the Colburn School presented a couple of super-sized chamber music works--the always celestial Mendelssohn Octet, Opus 20 and Tchaikovsky's homage to the Italian grand tour and his last chamber work, Souvenir de Florence. It was the kick off concert for the Colburn Chamber Music Society series. I don't usually advocate shop- ping concerts but at ten dollars you would be hard pressed to find a better deal. There were still a few tickets available in the intimate Zipper Hall prior to concert time but in the end it was a sold out affair. Colburn is my go-to choice for chamber music in Los Angeles. You can find a ready supply of great music there week after week and the best part of it is you don't have to compete to get in. Also on hand for the concert was a mixed crowd of Colburn students, kids from the Youth Orchestra L.A program and their families, along with Colburn regulars.
Pieces like the Octet and Souvenir are always popular, the more so because we get to hear them less frequently than those in the standard quartet repertory. They seem more often than not, reserved for festival situations. The two pieces are good as a pair. They both offer outsized first movements followed by slighter second, third and fourth movements. In this instance, the Colburn borrowed a page from the Marlboro Music Festival by teaming the Tokyo String Quartet with students currently studying at the school. Joining the Tokyo for Souvenir de Florence were cellist, Arlen Hlusko and violist, Born Lau. The members of the Colburn's Peresson Quartet--Nigel Armstrong, Luanne Homzy, Minkyung Sung, and Julian Schwarz--played for the Mendelssohn.
Souvenir de Florence is challenging music to play but easy to listen to. The melodic themes, compositional variety and rich sonorities make it accessible for the ear. It is curious that though Tchaikovsky started composing the piece in Russia as early as 1887 he never mentions a connection to Florence or uses it as an early working title. The piece gave him a great deal of difficulty which he blamed on the problems of balancing the independent voices and his lack of familiarity with the sextet form itself. He abandoned an early trip to Florence in 1878 complaining that the street noise of the city was a constant irritation. When he returned in 1890 he managed to sketch out some melodic ideas but the actual composing was completed outside Moscow and finally published as a commission for the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society in 1892. The tendency is to try to hear the sextet as a kind of Florentine homage. Where we may want to find sunny themes and, perhaps in the second movement chordal passages, church music flooding onto the street through an open door, it seems clear that the composer was much more concerned with Souvenir's structural and compositional demands. After many revisions, when it was finally published, he felt a great sense of satisfaction with his sextet. He took special pride in the final movement, notably the fugue, which he called "a great delight".
While Sunday's performance was not perfect it did convey all the robustness you might want to find a big work. First violinist Martin Beaver delivered the fire and passion that Tchaikovsky himself required as the hall marks of the movement. His playing carried the expansive demands of the first movement with great lyricism and authority. Born Lau shone briefly in his exposed passages in the second viola part. His playing was stylish and expressive. Rhythmic problems prevailed in the beginning of final stringendo section, where a secure tempo proved momentarily elusive.
The adagio movement brought out a sense of devotional music making for the first violin and the cello as they traded themes and accompaniments. Clive Greensmith's cello playing was a delight here and throughout the concert. The movement periodically leans on the pared down playing for solo violin found in the Tchaikovsky story ballets. I found the overly long pauses moving from section to section a distraction, almost as if the music had unexpectedly subsided and was in danger of not reigniting. No doubt the quartet has been through this music many times before; perhaps it is simply an interpretive choice that feels different depending on whether you are the player or the listener.
The most consistently faultless playing came across in the third movement allegretto. Here the ensemble playing was perfect and the deft pizzicato exchanges seemed played by one person on one instrument. For me, the writing evokes bits of Dvorak, especially for the viola, but also for the ensemble as whole. The tempos were rightly brisk, like a Scherzo, as Tchaikovsky notes in his own comments on how it should be played.
Certainly the flashiest writing arrives with the final movement where the fugal sections and complex textures deliver the maximum benefit of a large chamber ensemble. Soaring tunes put you in the big-finish frame of mind. Second violist Lau again showed himself to be an excellent player in his brief exposed passages. Rhythmic problems complicated an easy access to the final più vivace section which struggled momentarily for a common tempo.
The Peresson Quartet joined the Tokyo in the Mendelssohn Octet. The octet was brilliant from beginning to end. The big form of the first movement was preserved in taking the repeat. Here the endings lead you in entirely different directions. More is better. The ensemble managed the widely tiered dynamic markings with great effect creating ample orchestral effects followed by quiet sections of spectacular calm. The passage work head- ing back to the recapitulation was exacting, putting you in mind of the kind of precision playing on which the Tokyo String Quartet has built its enduring reputation.
The dramatic turns of the second movement verge on the operatic. All the playing here requires a sense of dialogue an intimate connection; it was beautifully managed. The quiet moments commanded your attention. Perhaps, of all the playing on the concert, it made you aware of the influence that great players, who know the terrain, can exert on an ensemble. The Scherzo brought all the Mendelssohnian flare for the skittering bow. You can almost hear Midsummer Summer Night's Dream and the final movement of the Violin Concerto lurking in the wings. The ensemble playing in the closing passages of the scherzo was exact and clearly articulated.
Julian Schwarz set the fourth movement Presto off to an agitated start with some gritty, determined playing in the second cello. The program notes wrongly promised a comedic effect which, mercifully, didn't materialize. The music is clever, full of joy and a summation of Mendelssohn's easy virtuosity as a composer and the ensemble made it feel that way. The tiered entrances gave each player a chance to be heard in a concertante style as the full sound deepens and the contrapuntal nature of the movement is established. The layering of the Messiah quotation and the fiery counter subjects was always clear. This was a performance with no wrong turns or doubtful moments. Both pieces were received with enthusiastic applause; it showed that the Colburn is on a role with the creation of it's home grown quartets and that the Tokyo String Quartet, after 40 years, continues to be one of the great ones.
Epilogue…The delightful and the troubling
The reception following the concert, was a crowded, lively affair that included a pickup jazz ensemble. Nigel Armstrong sat in for a bit of Jobim, Autumn Leaves, a long version of There Will Never Be Another You, and a truncated Swing Mineur. A jazz school bassist did yeoman's work keeping it real. Not your usual quartet reception. I talked briefly with violinist Kikuei Ikeda. He is a delightful person. I reminded him of a concert that the Tokyo String Quartet had played in Vermont (1981) just after Peter Oundjian had been chosen as the new first violinist. Mr. Ikeda praised the collegiality and support that has become a hallmark of the Colburn conservatory experience. He had had a great time playing and working with the students during his week there, he said. On the way out I passed by the monitor in the concert hall lobby. The camera was still trained on the empty chairs on stage; I wondered about the next concerts that would take place there. Heading to the car I made my way past a street camp of homeless people, a scant half block from the concert hall. Florence all of a sudden seemed sadly, a long way off.
(Sunday October 17, 2010 at the Colburn Zipper Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 and Mendelssohn Octet E-flat Major, Op. 20)