Times Music Writer

What makes a festival festive? Sometimes, merely canny and distinctive programming.

The agenda of works by Russian composers at the third event of the current Sitka/LA Festival of Chamber Music, Thursday night in Japan America Theatre, certainly accomplished that end. Though none of the three works presented--the variations movement from Arensky’s Second Quartet, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 and the Piano Quintet by Sergei Taneyev--can lay claim to a permanent place in the repertory, each is individual, unhackneyed and has its charms.

The program was offered in honor of the 85th birthday (Feb. 2) of Jascha Heifetz by the festival players, some of whom were his students at USC. To the reclusive (and absent) Heifetz, this tribute may or may not have been an important occasion. To the eight instrumentalists performing Thursday, it was clearly special.


Five of them--pianist Jerome Lowenthal, violinists Paul Rosenthal and Yukiko Kamei, violist Marcus Thompson and cellist Stephen Kates--brought to Taneyev’s handsome and neglected Quintet an apparently genuine commitment of musical intensity, rich tone and virtuoso resources.

In the process, they produced a performance that put the piece in its best light. They could not, of course, make it live up to the extravagant claims of the accompanying, uncredited and perfervid program notes, which threw out words like miracle and masterpiece, not to mention intercalated and tattoo, with ostensible authority.

Leading up to this climax, violinist Masuko Ushioda, with cellist Jeffrey Solow and pianist Lowenthal, delivered much of the lyricism and violence in Shostakovich’s engaging E-minor Trio, while missing its more subtle shades of wit and irony. Lowenthal’s solid and impassioned pianism was hampered, here and in the Taneyev work, by a Boesendorfer instrument of limited color, power and resonance.

Earlier, Kamei, with violist Milton Thomas and cellists Solow and Kates, found the quiet joys and touching resignation in Arensky’s often-exposing Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky.