By Ted AYALA
Pacific Serenades, one of Southern California’s finest chamber music ensembles, opened its 26th season last week with four concerts devoted to the music of Ravel, Beethoven and local composer Laura Karpman. One of the most appealing facets of Pacific Serenades’ concerts – something that has surely ensured this organization’s continued good health – is its organizers’ understanding of Los Angeles’ multi-polar orientation.
Whereas most musical organizations are tethered to a single area or hall, the Pacific Serenaders find a home for their music-making all across the city: from the shores of the South Bay to the foothills of Altadena.
Their concert on Sunday at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church – the second of this season’s four inaugural concerts – proved to be a sheer delight, providing another vibrant testament to the richness of the musical culture in Los Angeles.
Violinist Movses Pogossian and cellist David Speltz led the proceedings with a revelatory account of Maurice Ravel’s thorny “Sonata for Violin and Cello” from 1920-1922. To those reared on “Daphnis et Chloë” and the “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” Ravel’s sonata may come as an acidulous surprise. Often harshly dissonant and peppered throughout with Hungarian folk scales and a dash of Schoenberg for flavor, the work represents an important transition from the opulence of his earlier work to the austerity of his final pieces. A tough musical nut for the listener to crack, to be sure, but an unreservedly delightful one in the hands of Pogossian and Speltz.
Unfurling with wild-eyed freedom and abandon, Pogossian and Speltz succeeded by digging into every dissonance, relishing the sonata’s alternating meters, refusing to constrain it or reign in its often savage beauty.
And beauty most certainly abounded here, most memorably in the desolate third movement, which in its climax finds Ravel prefiguring by 20 years the Shostakovich of the “Piano Trio No. 2.” A joyful revelation; had the recital consisted of this performance alone it would still have been worth the price of admission. It’s moments like these that one lives for as a concert listener.
Fortunately for the audience, Pacific Serenades didn’t stop there.
Closing the first half of the program was the world premiere of a piece commissioned by Pacific Serenades – “Different Lanes” – from local composer Laura Karpman.
“Part of Pacific Serenades’ mission is to examine life in Southern California,” said Karpman in a brief speech that prefaced the playing of her piece. To that end she mined two of Los Angeles’ most iconic symbols for inspiration: its sprawling web of freeways and the legacy of its classic Hollywood era.
Composed for string quartet (violinist Connie Kupka and violist Brian Dembow joined Pogossian and Speltz here), “Different Lanes” also incorporated the use of pre-recorded traffic sounds, and in a particularly contemporary touch, an array of iPhones and iPads, all of them displaying to the audience a panoply of moving images of traffic and freeways.
“I wanted to create a multimedia experience no bigger than the quartet,” she explained. “I didn’t want it to overwhelm.”
It was a curiosity, but one not altogether successful, as the use of such small devices made it difficult for members of the audience seated farther away to view them without resorting to squinting or wishing for a stronger prescription for their glasses. Nonetheless, the music is the thing here and it was there where Karpman succeeded.
Conjuring up a frenetic nighttime car chase down the winding and narrow stretches of the northern 110 Freeway, Karpman’s suite begins with the driving (no pun intended), fandango rhythm of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Homages to the 105, 90, 405 and even to the recent “Carmageddon” weekend jostled past each other – all with a deep tip of the hat to Herrmann. Not profound music, but all of it very enjoyable. About as fun as taking a summer evening drive down PCH in a convertible with the top down – and without having to worry whether there’s a CHP officer lurking nearby just itching to pounce on you with a speeding ticket.
Seriousness came with a capital “S” at the program’s close. Or rather with a capital “B” – as in for Beethoven. Pacific Serenades played the third of his “Opus 18” string quartets, one of his initial volleys into a genre that he would eventually leave as deep an imprint as he did with the genre of symphony and piano sonata.
“Musicians are trained to make beautiful sounds and left to their own devices that’s all they’ll do,” opined Ian MacDonald. It certainly is true of the way Beethoven (and much music in general) seems to be approached today. Cosmetically immaculate while leaving the listener curiously unmoved, a lot of contemporary performances of music appear to be more concerned with exterior gloss at the expense of spiritual depth. Not so with this performance.
The Pacific Serenaders played with a fire and sinew that would have surely pleased the Master himself. Lovingly molded one moment, laying full force into Beethoven’s ham-fisted wit, with its heavy downbeats and jabbing sforzandi, the next. In short, a world-class demonstration of brilliant technique and intelligent musicianship.
In case you needed further confirmation, Pacific Serenades is further proof that local classical music lovers enjoy a spoil of riches in Los Angeles.