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Southwest Francophile

by Daniel Corral
August 4, 2012

On July 29 I had the pleasure of attending an outdoor concert by Southwest Chamber Music at the Huntington in Pasadena. The program, like most of their performances this summer, focused entirely on the music of French composers from the turn of the 20th century (every concert of the summer features at least one piece by both Ravel and Debussy).

As darkness settled on the grounds of the Huntington, it became quickly apparent that the loggia of the Huntington Art Gallery was the perfect setting to hear chamber works by the likes of Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, and Franck. Those who could afford seats in the loggia were treated to splendidly intimate performances by the ensemble, who performed from the outer edge of the space. Those who sat on the lawn had to listen from behind the musicians and through the open piano lid, but to the same great performances.

To start things off, pianist Ming Tsu played Debussy's Suite Bergamasque, a crowd-pleaser for sure. She played through it expertly, and there was a subtly humorous moment in her final cadence that I bet few in the audience noticed. As Tsu finished the final chords of Passepied, the engine of a distant airplane hummed a minor second above the tonic of the last chord. It created a fascinating, unavoidable dissonance that reminded me of the ending of my own solo piano piece, Sigils, which Vicki Ray premiered last November at Pianospheres.

Ravel's Chansons madécasses followed, sung by soprano Elissa Johnston with Larry Kaplan, Peter Jacobson, and Ming Tsu on flute, cello, and piano respectively. Johnston did a fine job walking the fine line between chamber music repose and the inherent drama of the sexual and racial content of De Parny's text.The performance somehow reminded me of Virgil Thomson - somewhat anachronistic, I know, but I found myself wondering if the two composers ever actually exchanged words or ideas during Thomson's time in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger.

Milhaud's La Création du monde, Op 81b is described in the program as an "impression of le jazz hot he experienced from the Hotel Brunswick Orchestra and the New Orleans-flavored jazz of Harlem." Fittingly, the piece is far more Gershwin than Grappelli (I overheard one patron even say they expected to hear Rhapsody in Blue nested in the middle), and I again wondered if Gershwin and Milhaud ever sat down and had a conversation. The ensemble (Lorenz Gamma, Shalini Vijayan, Luke Maurer, Peter Jacobson, and Ming Tsu) played the quartet and piano arrangement of the piece wonderfully.

After an intermission, the same group launched into Franck's Quintet for Piano and Strings in D Major, Op. 45. In contrast to the previous pieces, the Franck felt dense and heavy (in a good way). The interplay between the members of the ensemble was superb; Franck's omni-directional orchestration revealed no weak links in the group.

If you can afford it, the Huntington Art Gallery loggia is a great place to hear Franco-centric chamber music on a mild summer night. It looks like they have 2 more concerts in August...

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