A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought a French-inspired program to the chamber music series at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  The first half gave us the delightful music of Françaix and Poulenc, and the second half was devoted to Debussy’s brilliant string quartet.

Jean Françaix’s Quartet for English Horn and Strings was written in 1971 using a modern tonal language that relies on pure invention and cultural reference.  Some elements occasionally hinted of Gershwin, but this score was clearly written by a Parisian in Paris.

Carolyn Hove weaved a melody that capitalized on the unique timbral fullness of her instrument in the lower and middle ranges.  Her melodic charm was warm and endearing, especially in the second movement.  Camille Avellano’s violin complemented Hove’s higher register of the final Allegro, and Leticia Oaks Strong’s viola created a wonderful duo with Hove in the Andante as they blended their tones and manners.  The foundation and rhythmic drive was amply provided by Jason Lippmann, especially in the opening allegro vivace.

Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds was the high point of the concert.  The piece was written in 1932, and its manners are often described as satire — I would prefer to think of it as artistic caricature and Poulenc’s uncanny ability to cut to the quick.  The winds and piano were sufficiently robust to fill the hall with a delightful energy.  Joanne Pearce Martin’s piano provided the catalyst that made it possible for the ensemble to flip from blissful tunefulness to absurd modernity in a Poulenc heartbeat.

Shawn Mouser’s bassoon was super from the start, and his solo was great.  Sarah Jackson’s flute produced all sorts of effects and flutters, her low register was curiously intense and rich, and she at times added a shimmering effect to the ensemble — even her dissonance was beautiful.  Oboist Anne Marie Gabriele and clarinetist David Howard were amazingly nimble, especially in the presstissimo, and Ethan Bearman’s horn was boisterous and the source of much drama in the score.  The ensemble ending was luscious in the way only the winds can express.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, was the main attraction to the program; my purpose was to compare the LA Phil ensemble with the Ebène Quartet who played the Debussy piece just a few weeks earlier across the street at Zipper Hall.  Culture Spot LA reviewed Ebène’s version, so here is a great opportunity to go tête-à-tête with the LA Phil strings.

The ensemble was composed of violinists Minyoung Chang and Robert Vijay Gupta, with violist Dale Hikawa Silverman and cellist Jonathan Karoly, and as a group they were forceful and straightforward in their interpretation.  Karoly was strong, leading the quartet as if laying a foundation to give the upper string effervescence a place to hang.  Silverman had a brilliant tone, and combined with Karoly’s cello, dominated the overall sound.

To start the comparison, Ebène was on the Zipper Hall stage at the Colburn School, and the LA Phil artists were in Disney Hall.  For a string quartet, the smaller Zipper Hall with its adjustable acoustics was much preferable.  Although Disney Hall is acoustically superb, its size still exacted a toll on the sound, and, combined with a smaller audience, the ambiance was less intimate.  Disney Hall was dark except for highlights on the organ pipes and spots on the players.  The lighted organ pipes also gave the room a perceptual largeness and further diminished the feeling of intimacy by illuminating large areas of empty space.

The LA Phil’s Debussy was strikingly different from Ebène’s, and the difference was not one of technical prowess — the LA Phil artists are top-tier performers.  The difference was more subtle than the faithful execution of the individual parts; the difference in sound was the result of the level of coordination, communication, and familiarity among the musicians.  The sheer number of hours in rehearsal and performance give Ebène a palpable unanimity of interpretation and synchrony in execution that the LA Phil players simply cannot match. Although the LA Phil players were individually superb in their parts, they were inconsistent in their collective details.  Tough schedule.

Bravi to all!  Carolyn Hove’s performance of Françaix’s quartet was delightful, and the winds and Joanne Pearce Martin’s piano deserve a special salute for their Poulenc.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA