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Music Review : Southwest Quartet Begins Beethoven Cycle

During the 1980s, cycles of the 16 Beethoven quartets were regular events in these parts, with the Orford and Sequoia ensembles--both, sadly, no longer with us--risking their reputations on the greatest challenge the medium has to offer, and surviving handsomely. Then, at the end of the decade, the Juilliard Quartet, its skills honed over decades before the public, gave us its view of this inexhaustible subject.

Since then, no group had braved the cycle locally until Wednesday, when in the Bing Theater of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Southwest String Quartet, active for only a year in its present configuration--violinists Peter Marsh and Susan Jensen, violist Jan Karlin, cellist Leighton Fong--kicked off its traversal with the first four quartets of Op. 18. The remaining 12 of the cycle are to be performed at the Bing over the next month.

It proved a dispiriting evening, whose problems were generated by the first violinist. Marsh has shown over a long career as a quartet leader that he knows as much about this music as anyone alive. At this stage, however, his technique is no longer sufficiently reliable to do the scores justice.

Marsh’s extreme insecurity of intonation may have been responsible for the difficulties encountered by Jensen and Karlin, but amid the chaos, cellist Fong maintained not only his composure but purity of tone and centered intonation.

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Fong’s heroic effort couldn’t compensate for the shortcomings elsewhere, but it did make one aware of a young performer who deserves a more suitable showcase in the future.


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