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Critics Notebook: Chamber music steps outside the concert hall

May 11, 2009 |  3:00 pm


“Walk past the bathroom, turn left and you can see axolotls,” the cellist Erika Kirkpatrick said as she introduced Morton Subotnick’s “Axolotl” for solo cello and electronics.  She wasn’t kidding.  Nearby, if unseen, were some of the sad salamanders who missed the evolutionary boat.  Perhaps they were bopping along to the ghostly harmonics and energizing rhythms in their own slinky way.

The performance came midway during a concert by the California E.A.R. Unit late Saturday afternoon at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Griffith Park, part of Chamber Music in Historic Sites.  And it was one of two concerts over the weekend in which chamber music was liberated from the concert hall.

The other, however, was in a proper chamber. Sunday afternoon, as part of the Music at Clark series, the Euclid Quartet performed Beethoven and Schubert in a long, narrow, ornately decorated room that might well have been lifted from a European palace and was built for chamber music in the 1920s by Williams Andrew Clark, Jr., the collector and philanthropist who founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The acoustics, ambience and startling immediacy here are ideal for the medium.

Chamber music is regularly celebrated as a civilized, refined and maybe even a tad tame genre for the sophisticated listener.  That reputation is not deserved.
The problem isn’t the music but the chamber.  Concert halls almost always lack the intimacy or aptness for a medium in which composers often feel free to experiment.  Sometimes you’ve just got to get away.

The animals weren’t invited to the E.A.R. Unit’s party.  No well-scrubbed chimps danced along to Terry Riley’s wonderfully goofy “Lysol Apes Polka.”  Art Jarvinen’s “The Vulture’s Garden” didn’t call out to its own; a melodic line decomposing proved grisly enough.  Real pachyderms shunned Shaun Naidoo’s “Elephant Days,” and good thing, too; the booming electronic outbursts might have stirred panic.  As far as I was concerned, Robert Fernandez’s sprightly, repetitive “Tentacles” needed no creepy crawly audience underfoot.
Zoo officials figured the music was for us.  The E.A.R. Unit set up shop in a small amphitheater fronting the petting zoo, while the animals were off having dinner.  But surely the loud, exciting percussion quartets from John Luther Adams’ “Coyote Builds North America” were best suited only for human consumption – the drums were all made of skins.
In fact, the concert was not really about the animals at all.  What made this afternoon intriguing was the sheer artificiality of the situation.  The E.A.R. Unit, which was founded in 1981, went back through its library and picked animal-themed works it had performed over the years.  The styles varied wildly.  Somei Satoh’s “Birds in Warped Time II” for violin and piano (here performed on an electronic keyboard) floats on gossamer wings.  Phillip Bimstein’s hilarious “Garland Hirschi’s Cows” is a sort-of Steve Reich-on-a-dude-ranch.
The scene at the Clark was obviously different.  An audience of only around 130 can be accommodated here.  The series is sponsored by the UCLA Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, which runs the library in the West Adams district.  Ticket prices -- a bargain at $25 – are made available through a lottery.  (The Da Camera Society, which operates Chamber Music in Historic Sites, charged $75 for the E.A.R Unit, pricing out most of the new music community).
The Euclid takes its name from Euclid Avenue in Cleveland.  Still, these young players, who have been together for 10 years, have a well-polished sound and strong enough sense of structure that they might as well have chosen the Greek geometer as their inspiration.
They began with Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6, and, joined by Kronos Quartet cellist Jennifer Culp, ended with Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major.  While Beethoven’s is an early piece and Schubert’s is one of his last, both were written by 30-year-old composers.  And both works sounded fabulous in the Clark, where Beethoven’s alarmingly interesting harmonies and the gorgeous richness of Schubert’s expressive writing for two cellos in his quintet had a lifelike presence, even if the room also exposed the violinists’ lapses in intonation (it was a warm afternoon).

In between, the Euclid played Matthew Hindson’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Industrial Night Music”).  Written in 2003, it evokes, the Australian composer suggests, the pollution, grime, ugliness and heat of Australia’s industrialized Port Kembla.  Indeed, industrial nightmare music seems to be what Hindson had in mind with his wild glissandos and galumphing cello solo (brilliantly played by Philip von Maltzahn) that reminded of the flip side of “Axolotl.”

There was something appropriately disturbing about hearing this piece, given a knock-out performance, in so polite a setting.  Environment matters, and it matters all the more when the music is about the environment.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Members of the California E.A.R Unit perform percussion quartets by John Luther Adams at the Los Angeles Zoo Saturday afternoon.  Credit: Stefano Paltera/Los Angeles Times