MUSIC AND DANCE : Chamber Music Ensemble Goes Out on a Limb With Repertory Mix of Old, New

As if they don't have enough to do, 10 Southern California musicians are launching an ambitious chamber music series this weekend. But they're not in it for the money.

"We're busy enough as it is," Jeff von der Schmidt, the group's artistic director, said in a recent phone interview. "We don't need any more concerts. . . . But we've all dealt with so many orchestras, we just want to run our own thing."

The group, the Southwest Chamber Music Society, is made up of musicians from the Pacific and Pasadena symphonies and the California ERA Unit, which specializes in contemporary music.

They will perform in three locations in the coming week: at 2 p.m. Sunday at Santa Ana High School; at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Wright Auditorium in the Pasadena Library, and at 8 p.m. next Wednesday at the United Methodist Church in Claremont. The program will include music by Debussy, Britten and Anthony Vazzana.

What makes this group different from most other chamber ensembles is its risky mix of new music and standard works, Von der Schmidt said.

"When we wanted to do a program of (Charles) Wourinen, Brahms and Stravinsky, managers told us, 'You can't do it, it will kill your crowd.' "

For that reason, most touring groups stick to a far safer repertory, Von der Schmidt maintains. That leaves the listener who is interested in exploring contemporary works with few choices.

"In those cases, you have to take the repertory of the ensembles that are coming through town," he said. "You have no depth of repertory."

The Southwest Chamber Music Society, however, is adamant about the need to mix old and new to more clearly show audiences the developments in music over time.

An example is a program that will include works by Haydn, Brahms and Schoenberg to be given in each of the three locations in June.

"Schoenberg always thought of himself as a classicist," Von der Schmidt said. "So to divorce him from that repertory is to do him a disservice.

"The Brahms work we're playing--the Piano Quartet in G minor--is a work Schoenberg orchestrated, a work he was absolutely keen on. In that sense, Brahms is a soul-partner to Schoenberg's output at the end of his life."

The biggest problem in putting together a new series, Von der Schmidt said, is coordinating the musicians' free-lance schedules, which are "wicked to figure out."

"We have become very frustrated with representatives in the area who don't know how to take into account the enormous jigsaw problems free-lance musicians have," he said.

"We've had many proposals turned down. We just reached a point where if we were interested in bringing--heck, playing-- chamber music, we would have to organize it ourselves.

"For musicians who want to be really challenged, chamber music is the only thing that will do it."

The group's inaugural concerts in the next seven days will include Britten's "The Heart of the Matter," which sets poems by Edith Sitwell to music. The piece has only recently been published in England.

"The settings of her texts were originally intended to enclose poetry readings that (Sitwell) gave in the '40s," Von der Schmidt said. "They were private affairs and so the settings were never published."

However, featured tenor Michael Sells, a Britten specialist who teaches at the University of Southern California, was able to get permission from the Britten Estate to offer the work on this concert, Von der Schmidt said.

The program will also include the premiere of Vazzana's song-cycle setting of "Whispers and Chants," a text by Jacob Zeitlin, the celebrated Los Angeles bookseller and friend of many great American authors.

Von der Schmidt called the work "a very special collaboration."

"Jacob Zeitlin was one of our very strong influences," he said. "He helped us organize a lot of our thoughts and was very close to us. He agreed to have his poem 'Whispers and Chants' set. He completed it last summer (but) unfortunately passed away" before the work could be premiered.

Von der Schmidt described the work as "sustained and lyrical. I'd call it an experience of a protracted whisper, with a chant in the background."

Von der Schmidt understands the problems of launching a new series but feels that he has several advantages.

"This is a player-organized group," he said. "We don't have a manager. We generate a lot of our own advertising through our own computers. The amount of money it costs to put any symphony orchestra on a stage will buy us 15 concerts. Our annual budget is $20,000. . . . So far, we have been able to meet all our expenses through our ticket sales.

"We have 40 subscriptions right now. For a group doing offbeat repertory, we're happy about that.. . .

"Claremont and Pasadena, frankly, we're not even worried about people coming. Orange County is our biggest challenge. But I feel ignoring Orange County (would be) a big mistake. I feel the audience is there. I don't know if we're going to find it in our first year. But I know it's out there."

The program will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday at Santa Ana High School. A concert preview will be held at 1 p.m. Series tickets for the five events are $50. Tickets at the door will be $12, but student and senior tickets are $5. For information, call (213) 669-5303.

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