A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Southwest Chamber Music continued their centennial celebration of Pasadena native Julia Child with French food and music at their Summer Festival from the portico of the Huntington Gallery.  The festival has become a staple of the summertime music scene in Los Angeles, and Culture Spot LA was on the loggia for the July 28 concert.

Choosing a highlight from the evening is difficult, like having to choose from among courses of a fine dinner where each offering serves to complement the others.  Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses came with a super performance by soprano Elissa Johnston, and Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde was a treat for the senses, mildly abrasive and piquant.  Pianist Ming Tsu played marvelously throughout the program.  She opened with her sensitive interpretation of Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque and closed with a passionate punch from César Franck’s Quintet for Piano & Strings.

Debussy started Suite bergamasque in his student days and then reworked it some 15 years later, so it is a nice combination of youthful source materials, but refined with the sophistication of his popular style.  Tsu’s interpretation had a buoyant lightness to it that she coaxed with a downy-soft touch.  The Prelude sounded almost improvisatory as she punctuated her flowing pensive gestures with nuanced hesitations and wispy bursts of excitement.  An extended, affective crescendo gently relaxed into the delicate pianissimo of the Menuet.  Her left hand staccato of the fourth movement, Passepied, pulsed with an unmistakable joie de vivre that enlivened the splashy, flowing theme of her right hand; it was a marvelous sound.  The popularity of the third movement, Clair de lune, belies its curious rarity of performance.  Tsu’s interpretation was delightful, perfect for a sentimental moonlit promenade about the great Huntington lawn.  The dim light from the rising gibbous midsummer night moon produced a unique ambiance, outright stunning in its effect, but some of the delicacy of her sound was lost to the acoustics of the open space.

Johnston was sublime with Chansons madécasses.  The overtly erotic and racially charged text was taken from the work of Creole poet Evariste-Désiré de Parny, and the musical setting was Ravel at his best.  Her shrill opening call seized our attention tout de suite, then she seduced us with her blithe character and engaging tale. Tsu, along with cellist Peter Jacobson and Larry Kaplan on flute and piccolo, supplied an exotic timbral palette that enhanced her versatile voice.  The dissonant Aoua! opened with more shrieks and piano crunches. The emotional prosody of Johnston’s voice was superb as she not-so-subtly warned “mefiez-vous des blancs.”  In the final movement, Il est doux, Kaplan’s low-register flute was sensuous; his breathy attacks and harmonic pitches, along with Jacobson’s cello effects, captured the essence of Ravel’s soulful expression.

Milhaud’s La création du monde, Op. 81b, was downright savage. If there ever was a cure for the summertime blues – this is it!  Milhaud combined 1920s-era American jazz with themes from African creation myth in a bizarre and original take on the style.  At times the string players slashed their instruments and grated their bows to produce a Dixieland sound like none other.  Lorenz Gamma’s violin was dripping with robust lyric intensity; his instrument has a wonderful resonance.  Tsu’s rhapsodic piano solo was outstanding.  Luke Maurer’s viola could have been a saxophone in another life; his solo was totally in character, and one of the most memorable passages of the evening.  The ensemble as a whole clocked in a spectacularly chaotic climax that unwound to a sweet, introspective quiet.

Franck’s Quintet for Piano & Strings in D Major, Op. 45, was red-hot from the start, and it continued to flame through to the end.  The Quintet was the post-intermission program, and night had fallen completely by the time it commenced.  The light of the stage keenly focused the attention and produced a much different ambiance as the darkness gave the portico the illusory feel of a walled chamber.  The air was cool.  An intimacy emerged.  Shalini Vijayan shared the melodic lead with Gamma throughout the piece, and both artists imbued the music with a unique personal touch.  The ensemble exaggerated the dynamic contrasts to create emphatic surges of energy around Tsu’s piano, until she charged into the Allegro to unleash the huge energy of its climactic development.  Gamma’s sentimental second-movement solo was profoundly moving, and the fullness of the tone of Jacobson’s cello, especially of the low pitches, was indescribably beautiful.  Vijayan’s fiery energy ramped up the agitated third movement, and the finale had a relentless rhythmic push to a breathtaking ending.

The Summer Festival at the Huntington continues to amaze! Southwest Chamber Music is a vibrant example of the best artistry, programming and production in Los Angeles.  By any reckoning, they have had a great year. Bravo!

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA

The Summer Festival continues with two more programs: Aug. 11 and 12, and Aug. 25 and 26. Picnic on the lawn or enjoy the pre-concert dinners inspired by Julia Child and prepared by Jon Dubrick, executive chef at The Huntington Tea Room.

Read past reviews of Southwest Chamber Music by Theodore Bell.