Thursday, May 3, 2018

Steven Vanhauwaert and Friends’ SBCMS season finale


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Steven Vanhauwaert.
Planning a concert season must be a challenge at best, and a nightmare at worst. You have to balance a whole range of issues musical, human, and practical: achieving an overall coherence but still plenty of variety and avoidance of monotony; the acoustics and other practicalities of your venue(s); the availability of performers when and where you require them; their preferences vs. yours over works to be performed; your audience’s sensibilities and willingness (or not) to take a chance on unfamiliar music; the need to keep your Board and sponsors happy; and so on. 

Movses Pogossian.
This final concert of the SBCMS 2017-2018 series – given by pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, violinist Movses Pogossian, clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, and ‘cellist Antonio Lysy – also marked the end of Gary Gordon’s term as the Society’s Music Program Director, and so it’s appropriate to tip the hat here to his skillful planning of these concerts. Judging by those I’ve been around to enjoy over the last couple of years, they have achieved a remarkable range across the seven concerts per season, with the highest standard of performance throughout. 

Michele Zukovsky.
This last program was one of Gary’s most adventurous, my only reservation being that the second and third of the four items comprised individual movements extracted from larger wholes, which I don’t much care for; in each case, however, there were extenuating circumstances. The 50-minute eight-movement entirety of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time) would occupy some two-thirds of a normal-length chamber concert and so – given also that some might find his very personal idiom somewhat challenging – it was reasonable to give a substantial flavor of the work through its first, second, and fifth movements only. 

Antonio Lysy.
As Mr. Vanhauwaert explained, the Quartet’s very unusual scoring for violin, clarinet, ‘cello and piano was of necessity. These were the only instruments available to Messiaen during his 1940-41 incarceration in a German PoW camp, but despite the privations he managed to compose the work (or rather, complete its assembly around some individual movements written both before and after he arrived at the camp) and it was premiered, to an audience of the prisoners, in January 1941. 

Messiaen in 1945.
I admit that Messiaen is not my favorite composer: for me, his brittle sound-world, swinging between clattering activity and stasis, rapidly becomes tiresome, and the pervasive religious imagery that underpins and overlays it, stemming from his devout Catholicism, more than a little oppressive. But that said, his originality is undeniable, and the unique style of the piece was vividly projected by the players – all four of them in the calm, preludial Liturgie de cristal and the apocalyptic second, Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps, movement and, most impressively, by the ‘cellist and pianist in their long duet that comprises the fifth movement Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus… where Mr. Lysy stopped playing a few seconds in to await absolute silence before beginning again his long Infiniment lent, extatique meditation. He got it. 

Clockwise from top left: Dietrich, Brahms, Schumann, Joachim.
Following the Messiaen, Mr. Pogossian gave an exceptionally warm and engaging introduction to the 1853 F-A-E Sonata for Violin and Piano, devised by Schumann as a birthday gift to the violinist Joseph Joachim from himself and two young protégés, Albert Dietrich and Johannes Brahms. (F-A-E stands for Joachim’s personal motto Frei aber einsam (free but lonely), and as a musical motif permeates the piece.) Dietrich contributed most of the compositional heavy lifting with a wide-ranging sonata-form first movement, while Schumann wrote the brief Intermezzo second movement and more extensive Finale, and Brahms filled out the four-movement scheme with a rumbustious Scherzo that enfolds a fulsome Trio section. 

Less forgiveness here for the excerpting: the whole piece lasts only a little over 25 minutes so it would not have made for an inordinately long concert to have played all of it, and the tenderness and fiery attack with which Messrs. Vanhauwaert and Pogossian played, respectively, the Schumann Intermezzo and the Brahms Scherzo only made the loss of Dietrich’s and Schumann’s outer movements the more regrettable. That said, the multiple authorship of the work negates any idea of them being torn from a unified conception, while the Brahms at least was published, and is performed, as a standalone piece.

Darius Milhaud.
The concert was bookended by the two complete works. The four movements of Darius Milhaud’s 1936 Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano are all over in 11 minutes or so, and it made the perfect opener: its charm, amiability and effervescence are worthy of Milhaud’s slightly younger French contemporary, and fellow-member of composer group Les Six, Francis Poulenc, and the absence of that composer’s harmonic piquancy only made the Suite’s overall effect even sweeter. It’s salutary to reflect that its already impressive opus number of 157(b) stands well under the half-way mark in Milhaud’s colossal output; what other treasures lie concealed therein?

The second half was entirely taken up by one of the quartet of late Brahms masterpieces inspired by the playing of the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. This was the Trio in A minor for Clarinet, ‘Cello and Piano Op. 114, the concision of which, especially lacking as it does a repeat of the exposition in the first movement, emphasized how practicable it would have been to include the whole of the F-A-E Sonata.

Richard Mühlfeld.
This performance was more forthright than some I have heard, but the players still gave full value to the contemplative qualities that justify the “autumnal” epithet so often ascribed to these works, and which Mr. Vanhauwaert duly noted in his prior remarks. Even in the waltz-time Andantino grazioso that does duty for a scherzo, Brahms doesn’t lift his feet far off the ground, and while the brief Allegro finale starts with plenty of propulsive energy, it incorporates much reflective pause before rousing itself to a positive conclusion.

Robert Thies.
However, while this 55th season of the South Bay Chamber Music Society may have ended musically with the grave thoughtfulness of Brahms in his final years, its last concert had begun in a mood of optimistic anticipation, with new Artistic Director Robert Thies outlining the seven concerts he has planned for the 2018-19 season, opening with the unusual forces of a wind octet, no less. Clearly there is much to look forward to!


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, RPV, 3pm, Sunday, April 28, 2018.
Photos: Steven Vanhauwaert: website; Michele Zukovsky: Courtesy Summit Records; Movses Pogossian: Lawrence K. Ho, LA Times; Antonio Lysy: Clara Lysy; Messiaen: Courtesy Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Dietrich/Brahms/Schumann/ Joachim: Courtesy tumblr; Milhaud: Courtesy allmusic; Richard Mühlfeld: Courtesy Antiquariat Thomas Rezek (Munich, Germany).

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