Monday, March 7, 2011

Winter Valentines - Chamber Music Palisades Warms Frosty Hearts

Review by Rodney Punt

Los Angeles is just emerging from the coldest, wettest, and, improbably, the snowiest winter in living memory. Chock it up to that mysterious periodic cooling of the Pacific Ocean known enigmatically as "La Niña."

This February, Angelinos could peer out their windows and see the low-lying Verdugo Hills above Burbank and Glendale dusted with white powder. Switzerland seemed magically at our doorstep.

We may not have thrown frisbees at the beach, but what a great month it was to enjoy indoor music making.

The belated West Coast Premiere of Czech film composer Jan Novak’s Sonata Tribus by Chamber Music Palisades, now in its fourteenth season, was occasion on the first of February for another uncovering of a flute rarity at St. Matthew’s Parish in Pacific Palisades.

Written in 1982 and left in manuscript at the composer’s death in 1984, Novak’s flutist daughter premiered it and made it available to series co-director and flutist Susan Greenberg. She was joined in its performance by co-director and pianist Delores Stevens and violinist Sarah Thornblade. The work’s accessible blend of Impressionism and jazz is shaped into a Baroque trio sonata form. The initial Allegro movement has the piano establishing jagged propulsion over which the flute’s commentary is prominent in the two A and violin in the B sections. The Lento movement’s piano chorale is infused with intense nostalgia from the high voiced and long-phrased lines of the violin and flute. An energetic Allegro vivo movement rounds it out. It’s a skillful and attractive work from a composer who possessed both solid craftsmanship and a tender sensibility.

The program had three other works, including the youthful Mozart’s lively Quartet in D Major, K. 285, for Flute and Strings (Thornblade, violin; Rob Brophy, viola; and Arman Ksajikian, cello). Like flowers lining a pathway, pizzicato strings accented a lovely, lingering piano as it day-dreamed in the prominent Adagio middle movement. Two carefree outer movements surrounding that Adagio added further garnishment.

Schubert’s equally youthful Adagio & Rondo Concertante for Piano Quartet, in F Major, D. 487, had the strings engaged by Stevens’ melodic piano motifs and arpeggios floating above them, in presciently lyrical fashion to the later Trout Quintet.

César Franck’s Sonata in A Major, a standard for violin and piano, but originally composed for cello and piano, received a performance of equal solo opportunity for flute in the first movement, violin in the second, cello in the third, with all joining in the finale. Each of the featured sonorities worked in their own way; Greenberg’s flute solo in the first tilted the movement toward a Gallic sensibility, Thornblade’s violin in the second set off sparks, and Ksajikian’s cello solo in the third movement Recitativo-Fantasia was particularly warm and embracing in the hall’s acoustics. Everyone’s participation in the last movement felt a little crowded, but fun anyway.

The hall of Pacific Palisades’ St. Matthew’s Parish -- as impressive in its windows-to-nature way as the similar but more famous Wayfarer’s Chapel is in Palos Verdes Estates -- produced a tubby acoustic that emphasized the percussive middle tones of the piano, and sometimes threw it off balance with the more delicate sonorities of the flute and strings. It was, however, a relatively small price to pay for gratifying performances and insightful programming, enhanced by the usual high standards of Alan Chapman's commentary.

Four winter valentines had warmed the hearts of unaccustomedly frigid concertgoers on a frosty first of February. No one tarried, however, as they made their way through the cold of night to their chilly cars.

Photo above courtesy of Chamber Music Palisades. From left, Susan Greenberg and Delores Stevens
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

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