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Review: Starlight sets tone for Southwest Chamber Music's program

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We sing more songs of the moon and the stars than of the sun. Google it. The moon and stars win by many millions. Music and night merge differently than music in daylight — or even artificial light for that matter, as the debate over the new high-luminosity Hollywood Bowl monitors indicates. Night invites magic and mystery and, well, music.

That is particularly true outdoors, and it was to the nocturnal that Southwest Chamber Music turned for the second of its Summer Festival at the Huntington programs on Sunday, which featured the excellent Lyris Quartet. These concerts are held on a veranda of the Huntington Library, where the acoustic is intimate. Lawn seating behind a makeshift stage is also available, the music a little further away and the sky a little closer.

The program began happily enough with Mozart's cheery (dare I say sunny?) serenade, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." It concluded with Schoenberg's romantically dreamlike "Verklärte Nacht." The message was that "A Little Night Music" dancing can lead to a "Transfigured Night" of inscrutable love and desire in the dark forest once forces we don't understand begin to operate.

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But it was also "Baalkah" for soprano and string quartet by Gabriela Ortíz which addressed those forces directly. We've been given an opportunity to get to know this Mexico City composer a little better lately. Long Beach Opera gave the professional U.S. premiere of her opera "Camelia la Tejana" earlier this year, demonstrating her masterful use of voice and instruments to create haunting atmosphere.

Southwest Chamber Music has just issued an all-Ortíz recording, "Aroma Foliado," in which you can hear the past sneak up on the present through a kind of musical magical realism. In "Baalkah" that happens, and it happened Sunday night. In spades.

"Baalkah" was the Mayan term for cosmos. East, North, West and South held sway over what Jung would some milleniums later consider to be the archetypal aspects of our humanity. The Mayans put the center, the Earth and our place in the cosmos, as the House of Mankind.

Ortíz travels counterclockwise in "Baalkah," beginning at the beginning, the Mayan East, where masculinity sets life in motion. A singer howls to the moon like a wolf with unfathomable longing. That's how I heard it, anyway. Texts weren't supplied, and my Mayan is rusty.

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The guest soprano was Ayana Haviv, and she was transfixing. She is one of those unique L.A. musicians who does it all. Her voice pops up in the movies ("Avatar," predictably, "The Smurfs," less so). She's a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. She wanders through the vocal mazes of Bulgarian folk singing, klezmer, Renaissance music and whatever else comes along. She sang Sunday with the mastery of avant-garde extended vocal techniques and like a soprano Dr. Who who could channel the ancient unknown.

In the North, Haviv conveyed the havoc of masculinity, namely war and destruction. She had help not only from the string quartet, which moved from an eerie opening into more chaotically dramatic territory, but also from the skies. Even serene San Marino is not immune to the increasing Southland menace of hovering helicopters. Justin Timberlake and Jay Z were at the nearby Rose Bowl, and paparazzi pilots remain unregulated. The helicopter did not leave the 24-minute piece in peace.

Still, feminine endings are the realm of the Mayan West, and Ortíz's music fell into a rapt siren song and then an elicitation of fervent fertility before descending into the final Center realm. The helicopter banished the smallest sounds but not the sense of harmonic well-being. "Baalkah" is an extraordinary work, and it got a great performance.

Mozart's serenade, usually played by a string orchestra, was handled here by just a string quartet. Schoenberg's sextet, also frequently extended to a larger string ensemble, was given in its original. The Lyris (violinists Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan, violist Luke Maurer and cellist Timothy Loo) have the character of the old Juilliard String Quartet — attacks on notes are swift and cutting. There is no babying in the players' vibrato, no false sentiment.

That meant that Mozart's dances were aggressive not gentle, and some of the composer's most beloved music sounded new. It may have sounded too new, because the temperature dropped during the performance as sun set, and that seemed to temporarily affect intonation.

For the Schoenberg, Zach Dellinger was the additional violist and Peter Jacobson, the other cellist. In this early score the young Schoenberg, not yet having evolved into atonality, follows lovers into the wilds, physical and emotional. The ensemble cut to the chase with powerfully engaged playing. By showing the inner workings of an intricate score, the Lyris and friends revealed in this sextet song of the night the beginnings of a great composer who would change music.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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