By Ted AYALA
Oppressive heat, stifling humidity, and the mournful wail of the dàn-bu (a kind of cross between a theremin and a monochord) mingling gently with the chorus of crickets and the sound of the occasional mosquito. A scene that only needed the joyous noise of the night markets and the taste of a freshly prepared bánh mì to make one believe they were soaking in the Saigon twilight. But applause broke the spell – we were on the loggia of the Huntington Art Gallery with the lights of the San Gabriel Valley shimmering in the distance.
Southwest Chamber Music’s third program in its summer series exploring the music of France had the sounds of Vietnam as the centerpiece of this superbly constructed program.
For the greater part of the 20th Century, France was Vietnam’s colonial ruler, creating a strained relationship that resulted in long-standing acrimony and distrust. It was also a dynamic that, for better or worse, profoundly altered Vietnamese culture – from its cuisine to its current written language.
It was an influence that could be heard clearly in Pham Minh Thành’s “Ascending Dragon” for string quintet, percussion, and dàn-bu. Ecstatic melodies reminiscent of Messiaen collided with harmonies and rhythms that wrested the strains of the Vietnamese heartland. But it was neither East nor West. It was a music that simply wanted to be, free of borders and labels.
Preceding it were a suite of Vietnamese folk songs eloquently performed on the dàn-bu by Vân Ánh Vanessa Võ. To the ethereal sound of her instrument she added the gentle counterpoint of her own voice.
Bookending this portion was Debussy’s late “Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp” and Ravel’s “String Quartet in F.”
It is one of music’s great tragedies that Debussy did not live long enough to complete his final series of chamber works. There is a quiet desperation at the heart of the “Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp,” which was composed in the midst of World War I. It was a war that deeply scarred Europe and destroyed the stability and security of the past and abruptly ushered in modernity. From that cloud of cinders Debussy grasped at every which way; a work that looks backwards and forwards, unsure of where tomorrow lies. In its pages one finds as much Couperin and Rameau as one finds pre-echoes of Ligeti and Boulez.
The performance, which included harpist Alison Bjorkedal, knew how to balance on that knife-edge, never teetering too far one way or the other. It never sweetened the acid from the work, nor did it sharpen the contours. It was a performance that trusted the score wholly, presented to the listener in all its uneasy and fascinating splendor.
Ravel’s “String Quartet in F” followed, to which the Southwest Chamber Music players brought a bright-eyed childlike joy and tenderness.
Gabriel Fauré’, to whom the work is dedicated, declared the work a “failure.” In Southwest’s knowing hands it was anything but; the exalted level of its musicianship itself a glorious triumph.