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Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra:

Los Angeles
The Broad Stage, Santa Monica
02/12/2009 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 87
Robert Schumann: Märchenerzählungen (“Fairy Tales”), Op. 132 – Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63

Dana Gioia (poet), Margaret Batjer, Josefina Vergara, Sarah Thornblade, Roland Kato, Victoria Miskolczy (violin), Andrew Shulman, Trevor Handy (cello), Joshua Ranz (clarinet), Jeffrey Kahane (piano)

Margaret Batjer (© Michael Miller)

This unusual evening of chamber music included a poetry reading by Dana Gioia, a well-known American poet and librettist who also happens to be the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer introduced the evening and “westside connections,” the new series that she has curated to explore the relationship between music and poetry. The intimate Broad Stage, a sumptuous new 530-seat theater that is part of Santa Monica College, will be the location for the series and will help draw a cultured, relaxed and well-heeled audience.

Designed by architect Renzo Zechetto for music, opera and dance, as well as lectures and screenings, the theater serves the college as well as the affluent west side arts community. No expense has been spared in the design and construction of the hall, which was funded by Los Angeles’ premier philanthropist, Eli Broad, with the help of west side cultural glitterati including Dustin Hoffman. The modernist massing of this unique structure is a collection of intersecting rectangular cubes, with a large cantilevered awning that extends out over the box office and main entrance. The upper section of the extensive lobby is surrounded by a glass curtain wall on two sides that serve as large clerestory windows, filling the space with natural light. Polished hardwood, glass, metal and stone adorn the lobby and the exterior.

The interior of the house is all curves. There is not a straight line in the room, except for the perforated metal panels at the wings of the stage that are echoed in the lobby. The surfaces are mostly bent hardwood and shaped plaster with the lighting and electronics carefully integrated. The seats are arranged into an orchestra section in front of a traditional proscenium arch stage with one large balcony at the rear and a few box seat balconies at the sides. Many new civic buildings in California trumpet their sustainable, green design credentials. But this project, surprisingly, makes no overt gestures toward sustainability. They might have at least used waterless urinals in the men’s rooms, where they certainly chose other gorgeously high-tech modernist fixtures. But all in all, the hall functions superbly for both chamber music and the spoken word, which is an accomplishment that is not simple to achieve.

Margaret Batjer introduced the poet Dana Gioia as “the man who saved the National Endowment for the Arts”, recognizing that he is an important figure in politics as well as the arts. A solid charismatic presence, with a well-trained resonant voice and a wry sense of humor, Gioia offered an impressive performance as a reader of poetry. He chose romantic poetry to go with romantic music, and would have preferred Goethe, if it were not so difficult to translate. He talked about how the German Romantic composers were immersed in literature, and even obsessed with Shakespeare. He then read Lord Byron’s “When We Two Parted” and Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls.” These are glorious poems and were well read, but they are also certainly among the warhorses of English Romantic poetry. He also read a monologue from the libretto of his opera on the vampire film Nosferatu - sort of a passage out of an Ann Rice novel set to verse - very intriguing and seductive if not greatly profound. He relaxed the audience and set the stage well for the Mendelssohn String Quintet.

The LA Chamber Orchestra players brought fluency and ease to the Mendelssohn, and found mostly charm and sparkle. The piece opens with a full rich allegro tutti with the melody in all the parts, and then in the first violin played against the others. The sound was bright and vividly present; the acoustic seemed ideal. In a multi-purpose hall one might fear that chamber music could get lost or feel distant. But this was not the case. The music was both intimate and forward. In the slower second movement, Andante scherzando, the sound of Josefina Vergara’s impeccable violin solo seemed suspended in amber, but not at all distant. The languorous and legato third movement utterly evoked the unique quality of Mendelssohn’s musical personality, the opposite of a Brahms Adagio. The final Allegro molto vivace was persuasive and sprightly, closing a solid performance of an unusual piece of music with first-rate musicians.

After the applause, Dana Gioia returned to the stage to become even more engaging. He claimed that revolutions in art move forward by moving back, finding their vitality in the past. The Romantics especially, were obsessed with the Middle Ages and with folktales, the supernatural and magic. For figures like Faust, all of the arts, dark and light, are one. A poem is a song is a spell. By framing his reading with this observation, Gioia managed to bring a fresh sensibility to greatest of the romantic warhorses of poetry, William Blake’s “The Tyger.” The question posed suddenly became even more immediate: “Tyger, Tyger burning bright in the forest of the night; what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” What is God? Who is God? The next text was Dana Gioia’s own poem, “The Apple Orchard,” a ballad that has also been recorded as a song. The story of a serendipitous moment in a summer storm at a country wedding in Sonoma County, this poem offered the most persuasive, even glorious, spoken performance of the evening. He closed with Byron’s “So we will go no more a-roving.”

Next came the first movement of Schumann’s Fairy Tales, for clarinet, viola and piano, performed by Mr. Ranz, Ms. Miskolczy and Mr. Kahane. They seemed not entirely together, beginning at a lingering, fragile pace that evoked the hesitance of an awkward teen. They did not play the entire piece, so there was not the opportunity for the interpretation to consolidate, so we can only look forward to hearing them play the entire piece at some time in the future. It was a good teaser for the great Schumann trio that followed.

The great Piano Trio No. 1 opened a performance that was deep, rich and assertive. The pianist Jeffrey Kahane was both delicate and forceful. The strings were full of passion. The galloping and fluent repeated figures became deeper and more probing throughout the first movement, the strings engaged in a lively dialogue. The melancholy violin song was accented by the piano. The trajectory from darkness to the light of day was vivid, much like the journey depicted by a poem or ballad. The performers were completely “in the zone”, entirely absorbed by Schumann, by the very act of performing. After a massive crescendo, the music was quiet again, before the piano erupted in battle with the strings. The trio was immensely satisfying, and overall, the evening of poetry and music was enormously pleasurable.

Thomas Aujero Small



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