A “Symbiosis” of Biedermeier-era Vienna and 21st Century Los Angeles

Photo by Ted AYALA From left: Armen Derkevorkian, Stirling Trent, Joo Lee, George N. Gianopoulos (composer), Marissa Winship, and Lars Hoefs bubbled with a rhythmic vitality and melodic insouciance that recalled the very best work of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu during the Jan. 12 performance at the Paper or Plastik Café.


Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and George N. Gianopoulos (born 1984). Seeing their names paired up, some music lovers may ask what these composers have in common and why their work should sit side-by-side on a concert program. After all, between Schubert and Gianopoulos lies nearly two centuries and a gaping chasm of musical history and experience. But at a concert of these composers’ respective string quintets at the Paper or Plastik Café (5772 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles) on Jan. 12, the members of the aptly named Symbiosis Chamber Orchestra were able to find the golden thread that binds these two composers.

From across the ages, the vitality of youth fused these two disparate works at last week’s Symbiosis concert. To be sure, the different circumstances of their composers’ respective lives obliged the sun of youth to shine divergently on each work. In the Gianopoulos, a playful and carefree optimism warmed the listeners’ ears; in Schubert’s work, the clouds of death that would overcome the composer shortly after he composed this quintet were dispelled by rays that reaffirmed the beauty of existence.

The Symbiosis members that formed the string quintet (Stirling Trent and Armen Derkevorkian on first and second violins respectively, Marissa Winship on viola, and Lars Hoefs and Joo Lee on first and second cellos respectively) opened the evening with Gianopoulos’ crisp, new String Quintet. A brief, overture-like work that totaled just over seven minutes, the Gianopoulos String Quintet bubbled with a rhythmic vitality and melodic insouciance that recalled the very best work of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu – though Gianopoulos’ work spoke a language that was unmistakably original. Bright, syncopated string pizzicatos, sly deceptive cadences and winsome waltz-like melodies made for another brilliant work by this up-and-coming composer. Considering that the work as it now stands is so short, one hopes the composer gives serious thought to adding another movement or two to his quintet. Listening to such sunny and delightful music, it’s hard not to be left wanting to hear more.

Easy though the music falls on the listener’s ears, it artfully masks some challenging demands made of its players. Pinpoint rhythmic and intonational precision is a requirement in this score. Not that the members of Symbiosis had anything to worry about. They walked the tightrope of Gianopoulos’ score with all the surefooted wit of a Buster Keaton. Listening to them play, one would find it hard to believe that the ink had yet to dry on this score. The mastery with which they played the music gave the impression they had known and lived with it for years, not days. That the Symbiosis players enjoyed the music was evinced by the smiles that glowed from their faces as they played this work. The audience was no less beguiled and received the work with very warm applause.

While the opening work radiated with youth and the promise of the vast, unexplored horizons of life, Franz Schubert’s quintet saw those horizons denied to its composer, who succumbed shortly to the syphilis that afflicted his final years.

Though the work of a man aged barely past 30 – an age when most composers’ careers are just beginning – Schubert’s String Quintet is a mature and powerful essay of an artist at the peak of his powers. The “heavenly length” that characterized the composer’s late sonatas and Ninth Symphony features prominently in this chamber work of symphonic proportions. Throughout the quintet, a deep melancholy threads its way through the score; the bittersweetness of life’s finiteness. But darkened though it is by the shadow of death, Schubert’s quintet surges with the vitality of youth. His music never indulges in nihilistic despair. Even faced with death, Schubert’s music radiates a profound gratitude for life – even if that life was cut tragically short.

At the end of the day, it was youthful energy rather than nostalgic introspection that defined Symbiosis’ interpretation of Schubert’s Quintet. By no means did the Symbiosis musicians gloss over the work’s darker episodes. But they clearly saw the work as one composed by a young man. A young man on the verge of death, certainly – but a young man nonetheless. In the hands of Symbiosis, the Franz Schubert that was fond of a good drink, enjoyed telling jokes, and played dance after dance on the piano into the wee hours of the morning for his friends came to the fore. The quintet’s scherzo especially pulsated with muscular vigor. The work’s finale, dashed with a bit of Hungarian paprika, was played with ebullient cheer, though they knew when to warm the heart when the music called for it.

Schubert’s friend, the poet Franz Grillparzer, famously etched these words on the composer’s tombstone: “Entombed here is a great treasure – but even greater hopes.” What Franz Schubert could have accomplished had he been given at least another decade of life will continue to be fodder for speculation from musicians, musicologists, and listeners alike. But we are lucky to count the likes of George N. Gianopoulos and the musicians of Symbiosis among the living today. I wish them all continued good health and success and hope that they are able to exploit to their utmost the horizons that still lay before them.