If symphony orchestras are lumbering, soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs, as some of their critics claim, then today's chamber ensembles are their evolved, fleet-winged descendants that may yet survive music's Jurassic Age. The scene in Los Angeles has never been livelier; it's almost as difficult catching all this autumn's chamber concerts as counting birds in migration.
The latest sighting of the species is called 'Le Salon de Musiques.' Co-artistic directors are François Chouchan (series founder) and Phillip Levy, with Bernard Philippe serving as artistic advisor. They have organized an inaugural season of eight concerts focused mainly on German composers. The resident French and German Consulates are patrons. A list of featured artists in the series reads like a Who's Who of local virtuosos.
Le Salon's concerts are presented at an underutilized but elegant space within the very heart of the Music Center. The fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the former Curtain Call restaurant hosted fancy gatherings in years past, is both a lovely perch overlooking the central city and an acoustically apt chamber for music. Its dated, high society décor (with stiff chairs) is somehow appropriate for the throwback image this series projects.
Le Salon's promotional materials and its website have the refinement of a bygone era in their use of lacy script and imbedded composer faces that remind me of the Everybody's Favorite Piano Music volumes of my youth. Yet there is nothing stuffy about the sincerity of its promoters to beguile and charm their listeners into the glories of chamber music.
I caught the second concert of the series on November 21, a performance of Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. Completed just two months before the composer's early death, at age 31, it is one of the greatest chamber compositions in the repertoire. At turns serene and searing, it was also Schubert' last instrumental piece and a swan song to the Classical era whose chief proponents had also included Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The String Quintet's unusual combination of an extra cello with a standard string quartet provides richer sonorities in the lower ranges and, in the second movement, an ethereal dialogue between the first violin and the second cello. I hear that conversation as between a despairing Life and embracing Death, and it was exquisitely spoken between violinist Kevin Kumar and cellist Antonio Lysy, as supported by the soft, extended harmonies of a string trio within the ensemble consisting of violinist Maia Jasper, violist Robert Brophy, and cellist John Walz.
The outer movements of the work suggest a vibrant society of gypsies and gentry comingling on the streets and café's of Vienna, while a desperate inner struggle consumes the increasingly detached composer, terrified but never self-pitying. In this piece and in his simultaneously composed but incomplete Symphony in D Major and Minor, Schubert seemed to foresee, with agonizing intensity, not only his own demise but the autumn of a European culture that Mahler was so acutely to echo at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.
The musicians had not performed this work together before, but each had been long acquainted with it from other encounters and brought to the afternoon an authentic musical compatibility and refined expression that may have surprised even them. A discernable aura of significance filled the room as the music unfolded.
A pleasant aspect of Le Salon's format had been the earlier introduction of the piece by two narrators who earnestly if a bit naively read program notes, while the musicians highlighted important motifs to listen for in the performance to follow. After the concert, a question and answer session further reduced the artificial wall between performers and audience. That wall was completely done away with in the bonhomie of champagne and gourmet cuisine mixed with cozy conversation at nearby tables after the concert's conclusion.
For at least one listener at the otherwise light-hearted post-concert celebration, Schubert's String Quintet lingered and haunted.
Photo Above: Carole Sternicha
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net
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