Monday night, the Shatto Chapel within the massive First Congregational Church near Wilshire Blvd. was the latest site of a casually delightful, long-running Los Angeles tradition – the Armadillo String Quartet’s 25th annual concert of Peter Schickele’s chamber music.
The Armadillos have been performing for 35 years, and have gone for the last 33 years without a personnel change. To put that in perspective, the Emerson Quartet went 34 years without a change, the Guarneri 36 years, the Amadeus 40 years, so the Armadillos are right up there with the leaders. But all streaks have to come to an end, for second violinist Steve Scharf is leaving the quartet to relocate to Oregon May 3.
First violinist Barry Socher, violist Ray Tischer and cellist Armen Ksajikian haven’t thought about a permanent replacement yet, and there is some doubt as to whether the quartet will continue. Since the word didn’t get out until the last minute, only 22 people were in the audience to catch the last performance by this edition of the Armadillo Quartet, whatever the future may hold.
Much of Schickele’s chamber music can be described as cheery, flowing, informal rambles down the country lanes of Americana, always in a well-crafted vehicle, unafraid to take in some strange sights and detours. Along the way, he dips just a little bit into some bluesy touches for flute in his Pastorale and A Little Welcome Serenade (the guest flutist was the L.A. Philharmonic’s Elise Shope Henry). With Carrie Holzman-Little on second viola, Schickele’s String Quintet No. 1 could summon forth grander, richer textures which would have been even grander had two central movements not been surgically removed and replanted as a separate String Quintet No. 2.
Yet sometimes, even in his “serious” Peter Schickele mode, one can detect the presence of a little devil on his left shoulder whose initials are P. D. Q. Take the Little Triptych for two violins and cello. Schickele says he was “in a weird mood” when he wrote it; his descriptions of its movements, “A waltz that doesn’t end like a waltz,” “A hoe-down that doesn’t end like a hoe-down”, etc., speak for themselves, and the piece ends in a frenzy that sounds like the work of the eminence grisé of Wein-am-Rhein. The String Quartet No. 4 stops just short of Schickele’s alter ego in the circusy finale.
The composer – who turns 80 July 17 – was, as always, on hand on the left side of the stage to introduce each piece, the majority of them quite new. He walks with a cane now, but still keeps a busy schedule; he was in Minneapolis the previous Friday for a pre-80th birthday concert, and he’s currently working on a P.D.Q. Bach piece for Jeffrey Biegel, the Concerto for Piano VS. Orchestra, S. 88. Since Schickele says that P.D.Q. Bach is the only dead composer who can still be commissioned, he’ll continue to stay busy in both his guises.