MUSIC REVIEW : Chamber Music/LA Makes Point With Debussy Program

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Part Four of Chamber Music/LA served up a most interesting idea Thursday night at the Japan America Theatre--a survey of the final compositions of Claude Debussy. Indeed, there ought to be more programs like these that make historical points, instead of the usual hodgepodges thrown together for the sake of “balance.”

Debussy’s three sonatas--part of a projected cycle of six--were conceived during a time when the composer was ravaged by physical pain from terminal cancer and psychological torment from the slaughter of World War I.

The sonatas often reflect Debussy’s agony, the once-lush, lucid Impressionism stripped down to a desolate skeleton. Due to their diverse instrumentation, they are hardly ever programmed together, yet the festival format of Chamber Music/LA made this feasible.


For those who like to think of the Sonata No. 3, for violin and piano, as both a death rattle and signpost for the future, the deliberately dry tone and brittle phrasing of Yukiko Kamei’s violin effectively supported their case. In the Sonata No. 2, for flute, viola and harp, Milton Thomas’ dusky-toned viola, James Walker’s pale-colored flute and Ayako Shinozaki’s limpid harp made ghostly work of the first movement before warming considerably in tone the rest of the way.

The Sonata No. 1, for cello and piano, was saved until last, where the loss of chronological continuity was more than overcome by the sheer virtuosity and star power of cellist Nathaniel Rosen.

Rosen delivered a tour de force of technique and expression, from the most delicate whispers to rifle-shot pizzicati, with passages of searing heat and dramatic intensity. Pianist Irma Vallecillo, who also backed Kamei earlier, supportively stayed out of the way of this blazing performance.

After intermission, Debussy’s spell was broken by the obligatory Mozart entry, the Quintet in E-flat, K.452, for piano and winds.

Yet the performance moved at an agreeably vigorous clip, with crisp work from Vallecillo and generally smooth, democratically balanced playing from Richard Todd (horn), Gary Gray (clarinet), William Banovetz (oboe) and Michael O’Donovan (bassoon).