Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Strings, Attached

November 24, 2008

The Takács Quartet with Muzsikás
Photo: mine 2008

Los Angeles was awash in chamber music this weekend with two notable programs hosted under the auspices of the UCLA performing arts series at Royce Hall. The first was a well traveled collaboration of a show performed by the Takács Quartet in conjunction with Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás and vocalist Márta Sebestyén. The idea is simple enough, to highlight the folk influences that are readily apparent in the chamber music of Béla Bartók by placing it immediately next to some of the traditional pieces which influenced him. Things are broken into very fine pieces with each of the movements of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 followed immediately with the source of a particular melody or rhythm performed by Muzsikás. It’s a fairly haunting, if at time obvious, exercise. Sebestyén’s vocals were simultaneously sad and innocent – less world weary than acutely tragic. Still despite the very enjoyable evening, I felt the balance of things was shifted a little too heavily toward the folk music portion of the evening with the effervescence of the members of Muzsikás often overpowering the more staid music of Bartók played by Takács. Rather than spurring each other on, things often seemed like more of an unfair fight.

For the second show on Saturday, the hall was filled with two very different chamber ensembles: the legendary Guarneri Quartet in the midst of a national farewell tour were accompanied by the much younger Johannes Quartet for what was promised as a series of octets and new works. Originally the program was to include the premiere of a new piece from Esa-Pekka Salonen, Homunculus and a recent octet from William Bolcom. Sadly, the Johannes’ violist was called away following a family emergency leaving the group with Lesley Lawrence, from the St. Lawrence Quartet, who is eminently qualified but was not allowed enough practice to pull off the works which were both dropped from an appearance earlier in the week in Orange County. However, luckily, three days and a heck of a lot of practice later, Lawrence rose to the challenge, and the Salonen piece was restored to the program on Saturday.

This was especially good news in that in an evening of very fine playing, Homunculus was still the highlight. Salonen, who was present for the performance, explained that the work refers to an ancient theory that sperm consisted of miniature versions of otherwise anatomically complete and proportional men. These “homunculi” would then later develop into full size persons. Salonen notes that musically the piece runs in parallel attempting to be a miniature version of something much larger. And it is. Sweeping with an orchestral sensibility, these 13 minutes were filled with sweeping tones that wash one into the other with grand gestures. It was certainly captivating and worth the effort. The rest of the program was dominated with more familiar works, although the Guarneri Quartet did present Derek Bermel’s Passing Through. The substitute piece was Dvorak’s 12th string quartet and the evening finished with the Mendelssohn octet. Both works were delivered with expert skill and clarity even if they weren’t about to set the world on fire. But it was a very enjoyable night overall and hearing such beautiful music so well played is always a pleasure.

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