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Review: Peter Serkin and the Brentano String Quartet at Caltech

March 16, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Serkin_3 Nowhere does the civilized Old World meet the scientific New World quite the way it does at Sundays With Coleman, the Pasadena chamber music series that began in 1904 and has for many years now been held at Caltech.  The audience tends to be mature and distinguished.  A number of languages are heard at intermission.  The sum of the patrons’ IQs on Sunday afternoon at an exhilaratingly brainy program by the Brentano String Quartet and Peter Serkin was, no doubt, astronomical.

Beckman Auditorium, where the concerts are held, may be inadequately intimate, but it has other virtues.  It was designed as a public lecture hall, and I always feel a buzz when entering it, given how many ideas have ricocheted around its red and white walls and gold dome since it opened in 1964.  Poor though the acoustics are for chamber music, the enthusiastic voice of the great physicist Richard Feynman carried just fine in this space, as unfortunately did his bongo playing.

Sunday’s program provided much pleasure for a clever countrapuntalist -- that is, a listener who might enjoy understanding the complex way strands of Haydn’s Quartet in D minor, Opus 76, No. 2, or of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” (Great Fugue) fit together like musical DNA.  These were the works that began and ended the afternoon.

In between, Serkin joined the strings for a recent piano quintet by Charles Wuorinen, a pesky composer known for his impatience with insufficiently intellectual critics and listeners.   Pianist and quartet were also joined by baritone Dean Elzinga for Schoenberg’s “Ode to Napoleon,” a potent, knotty setting of Byron’s withering attack on authoritarian rule.

The Brentano, formed in 1992 and currently in residence at Princeton University, played with sober attention to detail.  The ensemble’s tone is not large, but it is admirably focused.  The players do not lack energy or power or passion, but they trust the music and don’t try to persuade an audience with theatrics. 

For instance, in Haydn’s quartet, which is nicknamed “Quinten” (Fifths), the interval of the fifth is intricately woven throughout the first movement.  And Sunday the work was treated as a storehouse of contrapuntal delights, with the players –- violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Maria Lee –- acting as genial gamesters.

For all his contrapuntal cunning, Haydn didn't hide his wit.  Wuorinen, however, does.  I wouldn’t have minded a skeleton key for his Second Piano Quintet, which was written last year for the Brentano and Serkin.  It lasts 24 minutes, with alternating fast and slow movements.  It is complex throughout.  And on first hearing, it went over my head, and I suspect those of many others as well.

Wuorinen does have an ear as well as an intellect.  On a new Naxos disc, the Brentano plays his “Josquiniana,” arrangements of Renaissance pieces by Josquin des Prez.  And for all his Modernist bluster, Wuorinen can write seductive music, as he has for the New York City Ballet and as he did in his opera “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”  He is currently setting “Brokeback Mountain” for the lyric stage.

In the quintet, Wuorinen takes advantage of devoted performers, and the committed playing was, in its own right, compelling.  The ringing sonorities in the slow fourth movement made a rapturous sound before the third movement sneaked back in and ended the piece with a strong flourish.

If any case needs to be made for cerebral music having the capacity to be immediately provocative and stimulating, Schoenberg’s “Ode to Napoleon,” written in Los Angeles during the Second World War, could be Exhibit A.  Byron’s angry denunciation of “a bigot’s shrine” and “despot’s throne” gave Schoenberg a text for depicting Hitler.  A baritone declaims the poem in speech-song; the lines are rhythmically determined, but pitches are spoken rather than sung.

Elzinga brought out the Schoenbergian range of outrage against tyranny with great immediacy.  Meanwhile, Serkin and the Brentano operated in a different sphere.  Schoenberg’s music is ever changing on the surface, and in nearly every measure these players were able to bring out something different.  The deepest subject matter must be examined from as many angles as possible, and here tyranny was turned this way and that, although always leading to the same conclusion.  The performance will not soon be forgotten.

In the “Grosse Fuge,” Beethoven simply broke the bounds of what had seemed contrapuntally or rhythmically possible in 1825.  The fugue was a century ahead of its time.  It astonishes still.  No ensemble can keep its cool playing it.  The Brentano served the mind, the body and the spirit.

And now a challenge for Pasadena’s scientists:  I understand Caltech’s physics and engineering departments are embarked upon important work.  But an electronic solution for Beckman’s acoustics would be not only a valuable campus improvement but potentially an invention the world could use.  Given how unsatisfactory electronic sound enhancement has been thus far, there is also money to be made that could help finance other research.

-- Mark Swed

Photo:  Nina Maria Lee, cellist of the Brentano String Quartet, with pianist Peter Serkin at Caltech on Sunday.  Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times