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Four hands and a voice: Southwest Chamber Music’s final 2012 summer concert

The final concert of Southwest Chamber Music’s 2012 summer season at The Huntington proved to be a popular ending to what has been a popular series.  Attendance on the Logia was overflowing to the point where an extra row of seating was hastily added right as the concert was about to begin.

As with the other three concerts in a series centered around French music, Ravel and Debussy featured prominently, this time appearing via music for piano duets.  Works by Manuel de Falla and Darius Milhaud rounded out the “classical” works on the bill, with songs made famous by Édith Piaf closing out the evening.

Unlike the previous Southwest concert which featured exotic music and atypical instrumentation, this program offered very little to challenge the audience, with a literally hum-along finale underscoring the entire concert’s easy-going sensibility.

The most successful parts of the evening were the two works featuring mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán.  She wrapped up the first half of the concert with a persuasive account of Falla’s Siete canciones populares españoles.  The seven songs present a broad range of styles and subjects for its singer, and Ms. Guzmán channeled generous amounts of the appropriate emotion in each of the songs.  Her account of the lullaby, “Nana,” was particularly touching.  If her operatic vibrato could sometimes overwhelm some of the lines, it didn’t detract from the overall impact of the performance.

There were no such issues with the Piaf songs, which Ms. Guzman sang with relaxed, almost cabaret-like informality.  She was clearly having a good time, and she repeatedly asked the audience to do the same though they were clearly willing even without the invitation.  Taken together, the three songs she chose — “Milord,” “T’es Beau, Tu Sais,” and “Le Vie en Rose” (none of which were announced from the stage or listed in the program) — gave her a chance to show off a good representation of Piaf’s songs while also giving her yet another chance to show her own range in a very different style than she did in the Falla.  The audience responded warmly and loudly.

The bulk of the concert, at least from an elapsed time perspective, was dominated by piano duets, played by Genevieve Lee and Ming Tsu.

While the opening work of the evening was the probably the most popular, it also was the biggest disappointment.  Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) by Ravel is often heard in its orchestral version, but here was presented in its original piano four-hands form.  As a work originally written for the six- and seven-year old children of one of Ravel’s friends, it is not exactly a difficult work to play, but can be a difficult work to perform compellingly due to its sheer simplicity.  Ms. Lee and Ms. Tsu played the opening Pavane de la Belle au boi dormant (Pavanne of a Sleeping Beauty) straightforwardly, even metronomically.  One hoped for a bit more variety of color or expression as the movements progressed, but it never came.  Even the finale of Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden), which actually provides some opportunity for grandness, was underwhelming.  That said, this is tough music to mess up and even in this fairly sterile presentation, was still enjoyable to hear.

Debussy’s Petite Suite fared much better.   It had more bounce, more vitality, more depth of interpretation, more . . . well, everything.  The piano duo had their best opportunity to show off in Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit (The Cow on the Roof), a single movement work based on Brazilian popular music.  What was originally supposed to be the score to a Charlie Chaplin movie morphed into a surrealist ballet about a bar and its bizarre set of visitors and their actions; it eventually was further transformed into a work for chamber orchestra and, finally, for piano duet.  It is energetic and jaunty, and Ms. Lee and Ms. Tsu played it in rambunctious fashion.

The Milhaud work also  offered the only hint at dissonance that was present the whole evening; despite some fairly mild harmonic and polyrhythmic clashes, it still proved enough to make some audience members squirm during the performance and lament its presence on the program once it was done.  Fortunately for them, they had the sweet sounds of Ms. Guzmán and “Le Vie en Rose” in their ears to hu1m for their walk to the parking lot.

Southwest Chamber Music:  August 26, 2012; The Logia at The Huntington

Ravel:  Ma mère l’oye
(Genevieve Lee & Ming Tsu, piano)

Debussy:   Petite Suite
(Genevieve Lee & Ming Tsu, piano)

Falla:  Siete canciones populares españoles
(Suzanna Guzmán, mezzo-soprano; Ming Tsu, piano)

Milhaud:   Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58
(Genevieve Lee & Ming Tsu, piano)

Songs of Édith Piaf:  “Milord” (M. Monnot / G. Moustaki); “T’es Beau, Tu Sais” (G. Moustaki / H. Contet); “Le Vie en Rose” (Louiguy / É. Piaf)
(Suzanna Guzmán, mezzo-soprano; Ming Tsu, piano)


Photo credits:

  • KCET
  • Southwest Chamber Music Facebook page

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