MUSIC REVIEW : Poet William Blake Focus of Southwest Chamber's Opener

The Southwest Chamber Music Society opened its eighth season Monday night with what, for this organization, has become a characteristic event: an intelligently chosen, exploratory program, solidly performed.

The other good news was the venue itself. The Huntington Library in San Marino, which hasn't served, at least in recent memory, as a major concert site, proved again an exceptional location for chamber music. Parked in front of Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy," the Southwest ensembles presented a resonant, balanced and detailed sound.

Offered in conjunction with the Library's exhibition of William Blake's illuminated prints, the program attempted musical cross-references with late Beethoven, devotional Haydn, and music by Benjamin Britten using the poetry of Blake.

Tenor Jonathan Mack was the communicative soloist in Britten's "Songs and Proverbs of William Blake," a wonderfully clear distillation of the poet's mysticism, wisdom and dark views.

Using the short proverbs as transitions between songs--as hovering moments of insight they are rendered in a shimmering, 12-note swirl--and capturing the spirit of the songs in remarkably immediate but evocative terms, Britten's 1965 cycle offers a compelling half-hour of words and music. Mack gave it a fluid, unaffected and forceful reading, with Susan Svrcek, on a clunky Yamaha grand, in integral backup.

The post-intermission proceedings might have been dreamed up as a sort of comic stereotype of all that is to be dreaded in a chamber-music concert: Eight slow movements, 48 minutes, of string quartet music, heard from hard chairs, in a museum.

Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross" is (and was), of course, much easier to take than that implies, being mostly simple, songful music alternating with straightforward dramatic outpourings. And the Southwest Quartet--Peter Marsh and Annie Chalex, violins, Jan Karlin, viola, and Roger Lebow, cello--gave it a polished, sonorous, flowing and intense performance.

The concert began with Beethoven's last string quartet, Opus 135, with the same players in a slightly less finished but no less purposeful reading.

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