Southwest Chamber Music’s retrospective of the music of France came to an end on Sunday at the Huntington Library in Pasadena with a program that highlighted charm and the sense of frivole in French music.
There was plenty of the latter in Darius Milhaud’s “Le boeuf sur le toit,” a breezy love letter to the Brazilian music the composer was exposed to during his stay in Brazil as a member of the French Embassy during World War I. It also is, despite itself, a poignant snapshot of its time, an era suffused with a bright optimism borne from the ashes of war in the decade that preceded it, a hope in a new world built on logic and reason that wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the old.
Before the Milhaud came visions of the world that was lost in the shape of Maurice Ravel’s “Ma mère l’oye” – a fragile evocation of childhood innocence and wonder, forever beyond the grasp of the adult – and Claude Debussy’s verdant “Petite Suite.”
Duo pianists Genevieve Lee and Ming Tsu were superb. Perhaps more elegant and aloof than sassy and biting in the Milhaud. But their restrained approach to the Ravel and Debussy were ideal, always allowing the music to speak for itself without needing to intervene. Especially so in the relaxed atmosphere of Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” where their ear for coloring the music’s counter melodies and harmonies was a delight.
Sassy and biting, not to mention vivid and expressive, are apt ways to describe the art of soprano Suzanna Guzmán who joined pianist Ming Tsu in renditions of songs by Manuel de Falla and Edith Piaf. Her diction was outstanding; the simple folk songs set by de Falla unfurling without hesitance. Her vibrato – sometimes more of a wobble – was somewhat distracting in the de Falla. But in her singing of Piaf melodies at the end of the night it proved effective, even endearing. Again, her diction was marvelous as was her feeling for the music’s bittersweet intermingling of easy-going lower class cheer and melancholy heartbreak. Pianist Ming Tsu was in fine form as accompanist; she allowed Guzmán ample room to take the lead.
A grand journey, closing out with a sly wink—what a way for Southwest Chamber Music to end its summer season.