Try not to miss the upcoming performance of Pittance Chamber Music, to be held in the South Pasadena Library Community Room on Sunday, January 21st, at 4pm. The event belongs to the Restoration Concert Series, a magnificent program reaching now its 21st season.
By Toti O’Brien
Top-notch artists and repertoire are brought to the community at a very affordable price, in a cozy, non-intimidating, pleasant setting. For those unfamiliar with its location, the Community Room of the South Pasadena Library is a large hall independently opening to the back, surrounded by lawns and greenery. The income generated by the concerts provides for the room’s maintenance and improvement, including the gorgeous nine feet Steinway piano you’ll be able to enjoy next Sunday. A committed group of volunteers—music connoisseurs and art enthusiasts—ran the series since its very incipit in 1996. While the programs focus on chamber music, also choral groups, soloists and jazz ensembles are presented.
Sunday you’ll be in for a treat. In addition to the gorgeous setting, there is ample street parking, and the chance to be able to linger among trees while you wait for the many friends you have invited. But of course there are other reasons.
Pittance Chamber Music is a jewel of a group
Their name is a bit of a pun. It means both the small musical offerings that these artists propose—as they group in tiny chamber formations—and the pit they come from—as they all belong to the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. You have already heard them play if you have been at the Dorothy Chandler, though your focus would have been on stage, riveted onto the wonderful singers. You’d have paid scarce attention to the pit, underneath, from which once on a while those virtuosos emerge, bound to take the limelight in their turn. Is ‘virtuosos’ too flattering? Not at all. All Opera lovers are aware of the exceptional skills, sensitivity, and training, required from instrumentalists accompanying singers, especially Opera singers—since the latter use no microphone, and they negotiate vocal acrobatics so complex they imply unpredictable, prompt, supple adjustments. Being an Opera Orchestra, in other words, implies growing a set of extra musical muscles, as you will be doubtlessly witness while enjoying the six wonderful artists on stage.
The selected program is thrilling
First, the “Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in B flat, Op. 11” will be played, written in 1797 by twenty-seven-year-old Beethoven. Being an early work, the piece adds to the expected energy and passion—which are present in full—a peculiar freshness. Yes! It is ‘happy’ music, brimming with playfulness, focused on the smart interplay of the three instruments, so involved in tight, brisk, elegant conversation, not a second of lull is allowed. The initial ‘allegro con brio’ has a crystalline, Mozartian quality. The ‘adagio’ brings up a smooth cantabile, switches to a darker theme in the minor key, subtly modulating back into major. The third movement is responsible for the ‘Gassenhauer’ (meaning ‘hit’, or ‘street song’) appellative, also defining the Trio, as it quotes—initially unknown to the composer—a popular theme from a comic opera. Joseph Bähr, the clarinet player for whom the work was made, likely suggested the tune to Beethoven, who obliging included it in his score, unaware of its provenance. The third movement—the most technically complex—is therefore a ‘theme with variations’ (nine of them), sharing the aerial exuberance of the ‘allegro’, rocketing to more brilliance as it blossoms in a syncopated ending, almost reminding of jazz.
Tenor Carlos Santelli, accompanied by a Piano Quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello) will follow with “On Wenlock Edge”—a cycle of art songs that Ralph Vaughan Williams composed in 1909, setting poems from A. E. Housman’s collection, “A Shropshire Lad”, to his music. This is a rare treat also for poetry lovers, as Vaughan treated the text with peculiar care, leaving it neat and legible, often letting it resonate on its own. The cycle is compact, yet varied—less painterly in its whole than one could expect, accordingly with the composer’s impressionistic background. If some of the numbers are rich in texture, thick with layers of tone applied like brush strokes, while some thrive on dramatic contrast, most are bare, delicate, the accompaniment stepping back in order to feature the voice.
Although soberly, the song cycle brings in a touch of landscape, evoking English hills and vales, nature and changing seasons. Johannes Brahms’ “Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115”—the piece concluding the program—has been often defined ‘autumnal’. This late composition of Brahms (when he wrote it, in 1891, he had officially retired, but after he listened to clarinet player Richard Mühlfeld, he couldn’t resist creating something for him) is lusciously textured. Its four movements alternate festive, colorful passages with themes of melancholy sweetness. The initial ‘allegro’, moody and stormy, is contrasted by a quieter ‘adagio’, narrative in tone although full of modulations. The ‘andantino’ is a shorter movement, brisk, fugato, joyful in pace, while the final ‘con moto’ is a theme with variations, resuming some of the first movement’s elements, enriching them with rhythm and tempo changes, ending on a long fading chord—like a gorgeous view vanishing in the distance.
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