Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, out of which eight members of the Los
Angeles Philharmonic played the living daylights at the University of Judaism’s
Gindi Auditorium on Monday night, stirs the listener’s spirit in two quite
different ways. First there is its own store of beauty and exquisite
workmanship, to hold us spellbound over its half-hour-or-so length. But it is
also a humbling experience; what had we mere mortals accomplished at age 16 to
equal what the juvenile Mendelssohn had here created?
Even against the miracles by the adolescent Mozart, this Octet holds its own.
Mozart at 16 was making sublime use of a musical language in common usage at
the time. Mendelssohn invented a language: the long, poignant song melodies of
the slow movement, the elfin trippings of the scherzo, the exultant, visionary
outbursts that round off the cadences in first movement and finale.
The wonder of the Philharmonic performance — by Mitchell Newman, Guido Lamell,
Lawrence Sonderling and Judith Mass, violins; Evan Wilson and John Hayhurst,
violas, and Daniel Rothmuller and Stephen Custer, cellos — was the players’
remarkable response to the work’s fund of creative exuberance. It wasn’t
exactly a careful performance, but its flaws — a pushed note now and then, an
attack not quite precise — seemed to stem from the composer’s own daring.
It was almost as though all of us in that hall, on stage and off, had become 16
again for the duration of the music. At the end we all whooped and cheered like
16-year-olds, because that was what the performance, and the music, deserved.
This was one of the Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society series at Gindi, seven
concerts through the season of interesting, stimulating programs played by the
orchestral members and occasional guests (pianist Yefim Bronfman next time, for
example, on February 4). If the Mendelssohn gave the evening its warmest glow,
it wasn’t the only delight.
Before had come five duets from 1911 by the Russian composer Reinhold Gliere,
scored for two cellos and played this time by cellist Stephen Custer and
bassist Jack Cousins: dippy little pieces sometimes perky and sometimes merely
gooey. Then came Prokofiev’s 1924 G-minor Quintet for winds (oboist Carolyn
Hove and clarinetist David Howard) and strings (violinist Barry Socher, violist
Meredith Snow and bassist Peter Rofe): marvelous sweet-sour music from the
Russian composer’s most experimental years. In a strange way, the Prokofiev and the Mendelssohn made a fascinating pairing.
Both works were about breaking through; both owe much of their appeal to that
very act of pushing back musical horizons. In both work — all evening, in fact
— the players seemed aware of the special kind of greatness in this music. It
came across.