Spendiarian, Verdi, and Brahms at Dilijan’s December Concert


As he waited and prepared for a production of Aida in Naples during the spring of 1873, Giuseppe Verdi received news of a setback: Teresa Stolz, the soprano who created the title role, was overcome with a sudden bout of illness. The Neapolitan production of Aida was postponed pending her recovery. So what could the composer do now that he had a month’s worth of free time? Write a string quartet, of course.

In a matter of weeks, the 59-year-old Verdi quietly composed a sparkling gem of a string quartet—his only one—while he passed the time until the Aida production resumed. Those expecting the composer to imbue the work with the Italianate flair of his operas may have been surprised when they first heard the work. Mediterranean lyricism, save for the third movement’s brief trio, is virtually absent. In its place is a compact work of consummate motivic unity and control that, as the equally consummate and controlled performance by the members of the Dilijan Chamber Series proved, casts its gaze further north beyond the Alps—to the Vienna of Haydn, Schubert, and especially Beethoven.

The performers—Anna Landauer and Movses Pogossian (violins), Brian Dembow (viola), John Walz (cello)—were alive to the intricate textures of the Verdi; alive to its verdant counterpoint and conversational tone.

The Sunday afternoon performance at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in Downtown Los Angeles also paired the Verdi quartet with works by another operatic composer, Alexander Spendiarian; a composer Aram Khachaturian praised as one of the “patriarchs” of modern Armenian music.

Most famous in his homeland for the opera Almast, Spendiarian also composed in a wide variety of genres. A handful of his songs, presented in elegant arrangements for string quartet and voice, preceded the Verdi in the Dilijan program.

Attractive and redolent with an easy-going lyricism that never strays too far from the salon, the Spendiarian songs were a fine appetizer for the Verdi quartet that followed. Arizona-born soprano Vanessa Vasquez, currently pursuing postgraduate studies at UCLA,  breathed life into the songs with her opulent, lush, and generously expressive voice. Definitely a soprano audiences should keep an eye on.

In this program of works by operatic composers, the late Clarinet Trio of Johannes Brahms may appear to be an interloper. The German composer, though penning dozens of gorgeous lieder, largely staked his reputation in the world of instrumental music. Yet he long toyed with the idea of composing an opera, only abandoning the notion in middle-age after becoming fearful of unkind comparisons with his rival and antipode, Richard Wagner.

Michele Zukovsky, Los Angeles Philharmonic principal clarinettist, sailed straight into the songfulness of the work. She along with her partners, pianist Gavin Martin and cellist Walz, spun out of the second movement’s delicate cantilena a web of quiet melancholy; its threads dewy with the regrets and sorrows of a lifetime.