At Ventura City Hall on Sunday afternoon, concert-goers who showed up to hear the Southwest Chamber Music group were greeted by a surreal sonic counterpoint: the combustible roar of Harley-Davidsons downtown, marking the Hells Angels' celebration of their 50th anniversary.
Nonetheless, a more refined sound arose from Southwest Chamber Music, one of the finest chamber music outfits in Southern California, presented as a warmup event for the Ojai Festival. Outside distractions notwithstanding, the City Hall's atrium is conducive to the intimate pleasures of well-played chamber music.
The concert's centerpiece was British composer Alexander Goehr's "Quintet 'Five Objects Darkly,' " commissioned for Southwest Chamber Music's 10th anniversary last year. An arduous piece, it addresses the persistent influence of musical history on a contemporary composer: Goehr takes a fragment of music by Mussorgsky, using it as a seedbed for a series of variations and asides.
Fittingly, its musical language spans the eras between atonal inventions mixed with fleeting bits of romantic harmony. For all its poly-stylistic ambition, the work never quite finds a compelling or cohesive personality until the last two of its five movements.
Framing the Goehr piece were two trios from the early romantic era, played assuredly by violinist Agnes Gottschewski--who studied with Ron Copes at UCSB--and cellist Maggi Edmonson and pianist Gayle Blankenburg.
Schubert's posthumously published "Notturno" is a sweet and tuneful work, and from music history's precocity files came Mendelssohn's Trio No. 1, Opus 49, written when the composer was 11. Full of the swarming emotive quality of early romanticism, the work proved a good showpiece for musicians well-equipped for challenges.
Composers on Parade: Celebrated composer Joan Tower passed through the area last week, in residency at UCSB. She had a featured spot on a nicely varied concert by the Ensemble for Contemporary Music. Tower is newsworthy, of course, because she is a she, and has been making important music publicly for many years, since before women composers gained any prominence.
But her ruggedly personal work transcends any hints of gender tokenism. She makes good music, by any yardstick.
Her 1989 Flute Concerto, performed with expressive elan by university faculty member Jill Felber, is typically Tower-esque. Scored for a chamber ensemble of 16 players, it contains echoes of "Rite of Spring"-era Stravinsky and suggestions of roiling South American rhythms, which she says she absorbed as a child growing up there. Juicy textures and a concentric increase of pace and heat give the work intellectual and visceral appeal.
Much credit is due Tower, but the work of composer Conlon Nancarrow almost stole the show, by virtue of its rarity. Nancarrow, who died last year, spent decades composing intricate studies for player piano in his home in Mexico City. Although he was belatedly recognized in the early '80s, his music has yet to have much of a concert life, largely because of his chosen medium--the player piano.
Nancarrow felt his complex ideas couldn't be played by humans, and he was right. But he did write some pieces for live hands, including the 1988 solo "Two Canons for Ursula," for pianist and contemporary music champion Ursula Oppens. Student pianist Valerie Taylor did a fine job of tackling this difficult piece.
Later, with Nancarrow's short, feverish "Toccata," Margaret Batjer gamely played a live violin part with a tape of the player-piano component. But the tape was of such meager quality that it desecrated the music's innate vitality. Such are the problems with live presentation of Nancarrow's music, short of presenting it on a player-piano onstage. Still, Nancarrow may yet be acknowledged as one of the century's most fascinating composers.
Rounding out the concert, titled "The Poetry of Rhythm," were new works by students Luigi Irlandini and James Ieraci, and the premiere of the engaging "Mam Se Mueve," by Jeremy Haladyna, the ensemble's associate director. For this addition to his series of works based on Mayan culture, Haladyna played piano alongside horn player Steve Gross.
Piano Introspection: Roger Kellaway, the noted pianist whose work has taken him in and out of the jazz scene over the last three decades, has called Ojai home for a few years, surfacing in various concert settings. At Wheeler Hot Springs, he has shown up with his old collaborator and fellow Ojai resident, guitarist Robben Ford, and in a reunion with L.A. Express leader Tom Scott.
But there's more to Kellaway than just the pursuit of jazz, as heard in his respected, classically flavored Cello Quartet music in the '70s. Saturday at 7 p.m., Kellaway veers outside jazz tradition to give a concert of his new music based on sacred writings, at the Ojai Institute. The institute is at 160 Besant Road. Tickets: $12 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors; 646-2536.