A satisfying balance of darkness and light

Special to the Times

From beginning to end, Saturday night’s Southwest Chamber Music concert at the Norton Simon Museum proved a deft display of the alternating currents of dark and light. Opening with a new work commemorating 9/11, closing with the tender sigh of a Shostakovich Quintet and with a meaty-yet-mysterious piece by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina as its centerpiece, the program exemplified balanced chamber music programming.

With the world premiere of Orange County-based composer Richard Derby’s “Memorial to the Victims of 9/11,” for solo double bass (played sensitively by Tom Peters), we’re shown a fresh dimension in terms of art dealing with that darkly fateful day and its long shadows. As opposed to, say, John Adams’ epically scaled 9/11 requiem, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” Derby’s piece packs its power into a tiny package.

The solo context allows for a spare, focused intensity, for which the rarely heard sound of double bass seems the right voice and the right choice. Blessed with low-end gravitas and a huge timbral range, the instrument shifts in this work from fractured, agitated pizzicato parts to mournful arco lines, spectral harmonics and complex overtones, all of which telegraph aspects of the 9/11 experience in Derby’s score. Horror, confusion, ineffable melancholy, and the painful path to resolution are poetically implied.

In Gubaidulina’s fascinating 1996 “Gallows Songs,” based on the gently sardonic poems of German writer Christian Morgenstern, the composer operates on dangerous creative emotional playground. Morgenstern, who has been compared to Lewis Carroll, delights in wordplay and references to creatures, small and smaller, and Gubaidulina has duly created a mystical and comic score.


Soprano Kathleen Roland managed the juggling act beautifully, with tonal and expressive control, with integral and mercurial supportive parts from double bass and percussion, solidly played by Lee and Lynn Vartan, respectively. In one Dadaistic section, the players were silent, mimicking their parts, with perfect deadpan composure. We were willingly led down a rabbit hole, in good hands.

After intermission, Shostakovich’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, Opus 57, wrapped up a satisfying evening with the composer’s house blend of Modernism and neoclassical formal gleam.


Southwest Chamber Music

Where: Colburn School of Performing Arts, 200 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $10 to $25

Contact: (800) 726-7147