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They call it Café Ludwig. Samueli Theater is set up with tables and chairs; coffee, tea and pastries are served. You introduce yourself and chat with the other folks at your table and then the pianist arrives and, instead of just sitting down and playing something, she chats, too.
Everyone seems to be afraid of chamber music. The Pacific Symphony's popular Café Ludwig chamber music series, which opened Sunday afternoon, is an attempt to alleviate that fear. Everything is better with a little fat and sugar. The talking musicians reassure the listeners, just as the dentist does before he inserts the needle. This isn't going to hurt. And yet, in the end, there's no avoiding Brahms.
Pianist Orli Shaham, sister of the eminent violinist Gil Shaham and a gifted, widely traveled musician in her own right, is the new host and artistic advisor to the series. She is a friendly, unintimidating talker, keeping it simple in her preambles. It's never easy to talk about music, but she managed to make it seem relatively so.
Shaham is charged with programming the series as well. Her first foray was dubbed "Piano Roles," and looked into various manifestations of the instrument in chamber music. Her three programs this season include a fair amount of 20th and 21st century music, none of it overly challenging, mixed with established favorites.
"Piano Roles" began with John Adams' "Hallelujah Junction," for two pianos. A thrumming, voluptuously tonal three-movement work, it toys with rhythms, at least some of them based on the title words, that bump up against each other in surprising ways. This jostling creates rhythmic dissonance, wickedly syncopated, which is then relieved when the rhythms coalesce and return to a smooth groove.
Shaham and Pacific Symphony pianist Sandra Matthews played it bravely, but not perfectly. They labored with the rhythmic complexities at times. Also, they were not ideally balanced with each other. Still, by the time we got to the strenuously hammering end, there was no denying the force expended and felt.
Shaham followed it with a crisply phrased, quicksilver account of Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse," for solo piano, and then concertmaster Raymond Kobler joined her for the composer's Violin Sonata, his last completed composition. This proved to be the afternoon's most completely satisfying performance, with Kobler's taut violin darting through Debussy's light and shadow like a startled fish in a dappled pool. Shaham tailed him alertly, inserting asides in his moments of repose.
That she is a stellar chamber musician was also shown in the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, which closed the show. She performed the work with the piano lid fully raised, but rarely overpowered the strings, something of a feat in this muscular work and lively acoustic. Instead, her firmly outlined impulses supported and drove the ensemble, colored and buttressed it. The Pacific Symphony's string players - Kobler, Bridget Dolkas, Robert Becker and Timothy Landauer - negotiated the rocky terrain with considerable gusto if not entirely in lock step. Never mind. The reading had energy to burn, and never lagged.
As the audience rose to applaud and pushed back the chairs across the wooden floor, they (the chairs) moaned like a pod of humpback whales in animated conversation. Quite a racket.