April 18, 2010

MUSIC: Southwest Chamber Music, April 17

Chamber music isn't really my cup of tea; I've always preferred large forces to small. But after a couple of years when some persistent minor medical problems have kept me from getting out as much as I'd liked, it was nice to go to any concert again, and the ticket was a freebie, so what the heck. And it turned out to be a very entertaining evening of music.

Southwest Chamber Music (SCM) is one of Los Angeles' most respected ensembles, winner of two Grammy awards, and this concert is part of the Ascending Dragon Music Festival, a cultural exchange with Vietnamese musicians and composers, sponsored by the US State Department. SCM spent two weeks in Vietnam last month, performing in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and this weekend began the US part of the festival.

You know you're in for an evening of contemporary music when the elder statesman on the program is Claude Debussy, whose Danse sacree et danse profane opened the program. It's scored for harp and strings (a standard quartet, plus a double bass), and the "sacred" half of the piece is all about textural contrasts -- the strings playing long, slow, unison lines as the harp interjects ringing chords; the contrast between the violins' quickly fading pizzicato and the more resonant plucked notes of the harp -- creating music that feels ancient. The "profane" half is a charming waltz, in which the harp blends into more conventional string ensemble writing, with lusher harmonies and graceful, flowing lines.

We returned to a similar ensemble later in the program for Nugyen Thien Dao's Au dessus du vent (Above the wind), for solo harp and strings. The strings here create an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere of keening microtonal clusters and long, slow glissandos; against that wailing, the harp plays jagged fragments of melody. Harpist Alison Bjorkedal is called on to pluck the strings with something that looks like a giant guitar pick, which creates a much sharper, louder attack than the usual finger plucking; she also sometimes jiggles a metal rod between strings, which produces a buzzing noise like a swarm of angry bumblebees. This was the US premiere of the piece (one of three such premieres on the program), and it's the piece that I would most like to hear again.

The other Vietnamese piece on the program (also a US premiere) was Va Nhat Tan's Pho (Street), a collection of fragments meant evoke the crowded city streets of Vietnam. It was a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting moods -- a rustic dance, honking winds that sounded almost like traffic -- with sections frequently separated by short solo interludes for the dan bau, a traditional Vietnamese instrument.

The dan bau is a single-stringed instrument (here's the best photo I could find of one, at the bottom of the page) with a range of about 3 octaves; it's plucked, and pitch is controlled through careful use of harmonics. It is traditionally an acoustic instrument, but I believe we were hearing an electric dan bau; I can't imagine that an acoustic plucked string would be quite so loud. The tone is piercing and dark, something of a cross between a theremin and a steel guitar. You don't get the long glissandos you'd hear from a theremin, but there is a lot of note bending. And somehow, it makes everything going on around it sound like an excerpt from a Morricone spaghetti western score.

The dan bau returned at the end of the program in Alexandra du Bois' Within Earth, Wood Grows. It's much more a part of the ensemble here than it is in Tan's piece, and it's often used to add unusual color to the traditional Western instruments. There's a lovely passage, for instance, where the ensemble plays above a series of block chords from the piano, with the top note of each chord doubled by the dan bau.

I found du Bois' piece the least interesting of the night, but in fairness, it's been a while since I tried to absorb this much new music in one night, and my ears may have simply been too tuckered to give the piece the full attention it deserved. Certainly there were lovely moments in the piece, and she does have a knack for pairing instruments in unexpected ways.

The program also included Toro Takemitsu's Archipelago S; SCM's director, Jeff von der Schmidt, explained that when he began the discussions that led to this cultural exchange program, his Vietnamese counterpart specifically asked that Takemitsu be included somewhere, as he is Asia's most important composer. The piece is scored for three on-stage groups of instruments and two solo clarinets in the balcony on either side of the hall; they represent, Takemitsu says, five islands which he imagines calling to one another across great distances. Unfortunately, the stage at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall is not quite large enough to allow for much spatial or sonic separation of the three groups, and so the sounds aren't quite as differentiated as I think they're supposed to be; everything just seems to be coming from the same place.

The performances were excellent throughout, with particularly fine work in the Debussy and Dao pieces. There are two more weekends of performances in the Ascending Dragon festival (schedule and program information here), and I would recommend them if your tastes include any combination of chamber, modern, or Asian music.

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