In 1982, an attractive young woman clarinetist with the smoothest, most fluid tone this side of Benny Goodman attempted to break into the all-male bastion of the Berlin Philharmonic. She lasted a year. The boys in the band said she didn't fit in with their sound. Herbert von Karajan -- the orchestra's famous music director, who was responsible for creating its uniquely cohesive ensemble -- disagreed and resigned in anger. It was all but impossible not to read sexism into the players' attitude.
It was even harder not to read sexism into their vote when in 1986 Sabine Meyer recorded Mozart's Clarinet Quintet with the Hagen String Quartet at a chamber music festival in Lockenhaus, Austria. The interplay between Meyer and the young string players (two men and two women) demonstrated that she was not only an exciting soloist but also an exciting ensemble partner. This is still the most seductive, most scintillating recording of one Mozart's most radiant chamber works.
But on Wednesday night, Meyer's performance of the quintet with the Tokyo String Quartet at Royce Hall, as part of the UCLA Live series, left me with a startling thought. Might not the Berliners have had a point? Might Meyer have actually been the wrong woman to integrate the orchestra? Wednesday's was a one-sided his-and-hers performance -- the his being the four men of the quartet, who really do play as one but were relegated to something like glorified accompaniment.
A lot has happened in the last two decades. The Berlin Philharmonic has welcomed women, and Meyer has gone on to a deservedly celebrated career as a soloist. But her domination of the Tokyo at Royce gave the impression of a clarinetist who is out for herself.
The performance was definitely fascinating and remarkable. Wrapped in a clinging gown that looked larva-like when she was seated, Meyer appeared downright primordial. Her instrument kept emerging from the folds of her gown as she wriggled while she played. Musically, she made each phrase a kind of emergence as well. Her tone is glorious.
But the Tokyo, by comparison, paled. Tender interchanges between first violin and clarinet in the second movement became studies in contrast, between a diaphanous string sound and a voluptuous woodwind. Meyer's virtuosity made a meal of the variations at the end, with the quartet in the ever-respectful understated background.
Respect and understatement don't translate as inferior. The Tokyo has its own interesting history. Formed by four Japanese musicians at the Juilliard School in New York in 1969, the quartet quickly became known for the sheer refinement of its sound. It was not immune from cultural stereotyping, the players sometimes accused of smothering individuality for unity, but its teamwork was always stunning.
Over the years, though, the Tokyo has become a multicultural quartet. Violist Kazuhide Isomura was a founder, and Kikuei Ikeda is the longtime second violinist, having joined in 1974. The British cellist Clive Greensmith has been with the quartet only since 1999, and Martin Beaver, a Canadian, became first violinist in 2002.
In an emblem of its cultural range, the ensemble is currently in residence at the 92nd Street Y in New York, where it is surveying string quartets by Jewish composers who fled Nazi Germany.
For its Royce program, however, it stuck to the very standard repertory. The program began with Haydn's "Rider" Quartet and Dvorak's "American." Those works revealed there is perhaps a bit more overt personality in the group than it once cared to reveal and neither the Tokyo's lucent sound nor its tightness has diminished.
On CD -- the ensemble has a Beethoven cycle for Harmonia, with an outstanding first release of the middle quartets -- there is much to be gained from such sophisticated playing.
But in a large hall such as Royce, the quartet lacked the ability to make a compelling impression. Haydn's rhythmic sharp edges and harmonic quirks were noticeable. Dvorak's lyricism was not neglected. But the ensemble did not play the hall, and we in the audience would have needed to be in a more intimate space to feel truly a part of the performance.
That may be why Meyer left the foursome in the dust. She may well accommodate these partners more graciously in more accommodating environments. But on this night her priority was to be noticed. And she was.