Southwest Chamber Music opened the 2009/10 season on Oct. 18 with an extraordinary event of true distinction at the Armory Center for the Arts. Founding Artistic Director Jeff von der Schmidt is well-known for bringing new music to Southern California, and Sunday’s offering was no exception. The contemporary program included Kurt Rohde’s “Under the Influence,” Alexandra du Bois’ “An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind,” and William Kraft’s “Encounters X.” The composers introduced their work and mingled with the audience after the concert.
The evening also served to celebrate an impressive professional honor awarded to Southwest Chamber Music: a major U.S. State Department grant for its Ascending Dragon Festival, the largest cultural exchange between the United States and Vietnam. The project, which will include concerts and other events here and abroad in 2010, brings national and international distinction to the ensemble, the organization, and its loyal supporters, as well as to the chamber music scene in Southern California generally. Congressman Adam Schiff, who recommended Southwest Chamber Music for this grant, made some remarks at the pre-concert reception about the organization’s outstanding reputation and the importance of supporting the arts. Rohde and du Bois, who traveled for Sunday’s event from San Francisco and New York, respectively, will be the American composers-in-residence for the Ascending Dragon Festival.
Rohde (b. 1966) introduced “Under the Influence,” the first piece in the evening’s concert, by explaining that the title is not a drug referent – the audience chuckled. It actually refers to the influence of other works Rohde had been working on during his time in Berlin, a hotbed of artistic activity. Rohde’s preliminary comments helped the audience appreciate the musical devices employed in the work. Von der Schmidt led the group through the development and atomic motifs that spun around and gradually coalesced into a clear sonic object. A jazzy-sounding theme in the clarinet starts a series of musical statements that are echoed and varied in the strings as the work unfolds. The effect was a sort of ostinato made up of the repeating motif. The top-shelf performance by the ensemble confirmed Rohde’s reputation as an exceptional modern composer. Jim Foschia masterfully played the bass clarinet as an unusual but approachable addition to the string quartet.
When du Bois (b. 1981) was chosen from among more than 300 composers from 32 countries as the inaugural recipient of the Kronos Quartet’s “Under 30 Project” in 2003, she wrote her string quartet: “An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind,” which she cites as a protest of the invasion of Iraq. In her introductory remarks, du Bois mentioned that the strings begin by evoking the sound of mourning doves and, later, of sirens, and those could indeed be heard in the piece. Her work was hauntingly beautiful in passages, some of which were elegiac. The strings brought out the entire range of orthodox and unorthodox timbres and pitches they are capable of producing. Even in these modern trappings, the quartet was able to find each cadence and precisely delineate phrasing and ensemble passages as they were led by internationally acclaimed violinist Lorenz Gamma. Jan Karlin, violist and founding executive director of Southwest Chamber Music, again played flawlessly; her versatility is amazing. Peter Jacobson, cellist and California native, was superb with his deliberate grounding of the ensemble.
Local icon William Kraft (b. 1923) has had a long and distinguished career as a composer and conductor. As the Los Angeles Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence from 1981-85, he was the founder and director of the orchestra’s performing arm for contemporary music, the Philharmonic New Music Group. Kraft has received many prestigious awards, and his works have been performed by orchestras throughout the United States and around the world. Southwest Chamber Music performed Kraft’s “Encounters” in previous seasons, and it was a treat to hear “Encounters X” (which appears on a newly released three-CD set from the ensemble). Native Californian Shalini Vijayan was in the spotlight, and rose to the occasion. Her interpretation grabbed the audience’s attention from her first touch, and her technique on the rapid flourishes was astounding. She blended and interacted with the marimba of Lynn Vartan to form a unique musical experience. Vartan in her part was mesmerizing, bringing out all of the percussive nuances master percussionist Kraft had skillfully crafted.
A few words about the venue are in order. The Armory Center art exhibition “Inside/Out” served the purpose well. The walls of the makeshift chamber were actually large-scale contemporary artworks. I found my eyes intrigued by the huge backdrop of 30 faces stenciled in “popcorn ceiling texture” in a giant work titled “Touching Neighbors” by Seth Kaufman. The piece on the left was “Smoke Knows,” huge wafts of gray and white smoke stitched in cotton and polyester by Pasadena native Pae White; and the tapestry on the right, “Colored Crinkle,” also by White, looked like folded foil in complex arrangements of color, including red and white. Rohde commented that “Colored Crinkle” seemed to match the energy and movement of “Under the Influence.” The ambiance was extraordinary for these modern musical offerings, and the sound in the Armory was quite good. Inevitably the high ceiling taxed the acoustic radiation from the performers and added a diffuse quality to the sound, but the space was also intimate and the audience sufficiently small that it did not seem to matter.
Southwest Chamber Music’s next concert is Nov. 16 at Zipper Concert Hall.