A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Delores Stevens brought her brilliant Beethoven touch to the Quintet for Piano and Winds for Chamber Music Palisades‘ May 1 concert. She and an elite ensemble of wind players, which included LA Phil principal clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, left Beethoven’s mojo smoldering in my reverie long after this unforgettable virtuoso performance.

Chamber Music Palisades is in the top tier of Los Angeles ensembles, employing the finest of area musicians.  Stevens and co-founder Susan Greenberg are dedicated longtime stewards of the musical art and have produced a “downtown-quality” event from the grassroots of the Palisades.  They assembled a most interesting program entirely of chamber winds, with Beethoven’s unique quintet of Op.16 as the main course, preceded by works from three composers who migrated to the United States and helped shape the soundscape of the last century: Alexander Zemlinsky, Paul Hindemith and Bohuslav Martinů.

The highpoint of the evening was unquestionably Beethoven’s quintet.  Piano virtuosity was the source of his fame at the time he penned this music, and Stevens was up to the task as she quickly made her presence known with a beautiful solo flourish. Oboist Jonathan Davis was graceful, especially tender at times.  Steve Becknell was intrepid as he triumphed over a treacherous coda for the horn; he nailed it magnificently.  The Andante cantabile was often chorale-like, and the sound enveloped us with a warm, breathy lusciousness that only a wind instrument can produce.  Stevens delicately framed the various episodes of the ensemble.  She supported the winds and bound the music together; yet she was also dazzling in the foreground with her seamless technique and authenticity.  The Rondo possessed a sort of inertia as she embellished the bouncy theme each time it passed through her piano.  The climactic fortissimo was thrilling as the ensemble resonated in the space; their blend was a beautiful, effulgent sound, although up-tempos blurred and fortes boomed.

Although I gush on the Beethoven, it was the other music on the program that attracted me to the concert, especially Zemlinsky.  He was a brother-in-law and musical mentor to Arnold Schoenberg, although his style leans to Mahler, and his 1939 Humoresque for Wind Quintet is a unique strain of the neoclassic sound.

Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik for Wind Quintet, Op. 24 No. 2 was yet another unique neoclassic variant.  Zukovsky captured the essence of Hindemith’s pithy melodies, and Davis’ counter theme had a relaxed and enticing lyricism.  In total, it was a great performance.

Martinů resided in Paris in 1929 when he composed his Sextet for Piano and Winds.  His neoclassic structure and interest in American idioms showed through, although always tempered by his Parisian sensibilities.  The ensemble captured Martinů’s effervescent fractal character, with its jazzy syncopation and functional dissonance.  Greenberg was sublime in her playing of the Scherzo.  It was fun to hear the ensemble morph from Parisian blues à la Gershwin into a ragtime.  Martinů left no doubt when the music was finished, as his incongruous neo-Baroque cadences seemingly supplied a grand “ta-da!”

Chamber Music Palisades is a jewel of our local scene.  There are so many intriguing aspects to their programs, and the musicianship is of the highest caliber.  After the intermission, KUSC’s Alan Chapman quipped that the motto should be “Good Music – Good Cookies”; not a bad summary, but the characteristic home-style ambiance belies the sophistication of this fine series.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA