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Review: The Dilijan series premieres a new Tigran Mansurian work

January 19, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Dilijan

The Dilijan Chamber Music Series is, outside the Armenian community, a much too nicely kept secret.  It presents half a dozen Sunday afternoon chamber music concerts a season in Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School.  Most include a new piece by an Armenian composer, and a loyal Armenian fan base guarantees decent-size audiences.

Parents, hoping to preserve a cultural identity, come with children in tow.  Concertgoers dress better than most matinee crowds and listen with respect.  The atmosphere is gracious.  No one is rushed.  If you linger over brunch and arrive 25 minutes late, no matter --  you're unlikely to miss any music.

All of that is admirable, and Sunday the hall was three-quarters full.  But where was everyone else?  The concert was, in fact, a major chamber music happening, a program of superbly performed, profound and universal string trio music that investigated the meaning of late style and easily transcended the concerns of any single ethnicity. 

The centerpiece was a new trio by Tigran Mansurian, Armenia’s leading composer, who has developed a worldwide following thanks to a series of riveting, soulful CDs on the ever-hip ECM label.  He will turn 70 this year, and Dilijan commissioned a short score in celebration.

Surrounding Mansurian’s trio were selections from György Kurtág’s “Signs, Games and Messages” -- 11 exceedingly brief pieces by Hungary’s leading composer.  Played at the edge of audibility, they suggest messages from the beyond.  The closing work was Mozart’s magical Divertimento in E flat for string trio.

The performers were Movses Pogossian, who is artistic director of Dilijan and one of the finest violinists in Los Angeles; violist Kim Kashkashian, a star; and Rohan de Saram, the former cellist of the Arditti Quartet.  All are imposing virtuosos and specialists in new music.  The playing was clean, precise and probing.

The string trio is a very difficult medium and one little used.  Beethoven, for instance, wrote string trios at the beginning of his career and quickly realized that something was missing.  A young composer wants more resources, and the string quartet, he discovered, held far more promise.

All the works on Sunday’s program, though, represented late style.  Some of Kurtág pieces are miniatures in memory of friends or historical personages.  The music implies more than it tells you with wisps of melody or counterpoint.  Notes never touch the ground.

Mansurian’s new trio is in three short movements.  In the first, a tender melody moves among the three instruments.  The second has a folk character.  The third is very slow and somber, the music ultimately evaporating in thin air.   The instrumental textures are exquisite, and counterpoint is kept to a minimum.  There is, here, the quality of late Beethoven, where every phrase implies others not realized, where every thought is condensed to its essence.

In contrast to Kurtág and Mansurian, Mozart’s divertimento, in six movements, is very expansive.  It is usually hailed as the finest string trio in the repertory, maybe the only great one.  Mozart treats the three players as equals and individuals, but even so he gave a little something special to the viola part, which he wrote for himself.

Kashkashian happens to have been the violist on a CD of the trio, with Gidon Kremer and Yo-Yo Ma, which is, for my money, one of the all-time great chamber music recordings.  Her tone is dark -- mellow yet penetrating.  Her phrasing is not fancy.  But she has, in her playing, an extreme eloquence, as if she is expressing truths. 

Like her, Pogossian and De Saram use minimal vibrato.  They illuminated the Mozart as if it were new music.  The performance was stirring, a worthy successor to Kashkashian’s momentous recording.  The little chamber music series that can, Dilijan, on Sunday, made the big time.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: From left, Movses Pogossian, Rohan de Saram and Kim Kashkashian onstage at Zipper Concert Hall. Credit Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

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