CLASSCOL

Fame in music, as in other endeavors, comes and goes. Five years ago, for example, nobody could have foreseen the return to favor of Franz Schreker. Now here we are with three new recordings of Schreker operas. This past weekend, furthermore, Nov 15-17 [F/L] the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra revived Schreker’s 1916 Chamber Symphony (for 23 Solo Instruments). Schreker (1878-1934) had been at one time Europe’s most respected composer, his operas prized even above those of Richard Strauss, revered also as a teacher and conductor. His stage works — big, sprawling, superheated romances, the operatic equivalent of Barbara Cartland’s novels — appeared in dozens of houses throughout the German-speaking world. Shortly after World War I, however, his fame simply vanished; a new musical language, sparked by Europe’s frenzy over the new-fangled thing called jazz, made Schreker suddenly seem old fashioned. He hung on through the 1920s, but the Nazi rise cost the Jewish Schreker the remaining shreds of his fame, and brought on the heart attack that killed him. It might be stretching a point to think of Schreker as a genius rescued from undeserved neglect; he still sounds old-fashioned. So what? The operas, for all their gooey boy-loves-mountain-loses-girl mysticism, have some soaring,high-caloric, irresistible passages. The Chamber Symphony, which Christoph Perick led marvelously with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, is full of what the Germans call “Klangzauber”: magical sounds. The work is in one movement lasting half an hour. In that time it dances, sighs, weeps, and gives off showers of bright sparks: Mahler touched by a fairy wand. The Schreker was followed on this program by exactly the kind of music that did him in: Ravel’s shimmering, flip, jazz-infused Piano Concerto of 1930, nicely set forth by Pascal Roge. The final work was an even greater miracle, however, Haydn’s “London” Symphony (No. 104) in a performance under Perick that still, a week later, resounds in my head. Haydn symphonies are often used to start off orchestral programs: the undemanding, easy-listening classical symphony to set the crowd comfortably in its seats. Placed this time as the climactic work on the program, and conducted by Perick with marvelous vitality and breadth, the symphony became a revelation. Here is the great Haydn at the absolute zenith of his musical mastery, honoring his adoring London audience with music crammed with novelty. He wreaks all kinds of violence against the accepted structural practices of the time, launching (at one magical point in the slow movement) into a series of harmonic changes that would do credit to any composer of our own time. This isn’t just any old piece of 18th century note-spinning; this is a work of awesome mastery, and that was the way Perick and the soon-to-be-his orchestra played it. If memory serves (and, believe me, it does), this was the best orchestral concert of the year so far. The arrival of Disney’s “Fantasia” — finally and, apparently, briefly — at your local video store (drugstore, supermarket and probably pizzeria) is a public-relations triumph orchestrated with the skill of Leopold Stokowski orchestrating a Bach Toccata. Even so, the film is some kind of cherishable disaster, a curio surviving from a bygone culture naive and permissive beyond any contemporary understanding. Purely as music, there is a ghastliness here beyond measure. It doesn’t have to do only with the major cuts — Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” reduced by about half. At least the passages that remain are fairly extended. But even the small pieces are hacked at; in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” generally regarded as one of the better segments, there are agonizing deletions of two or four bars here and there, obviously done to match the music to the animation. In 1940 there weren’t the 25 recorded versions of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to insure that we all know the music backward and forward; there was one, and one each of the “Pastoral” and the “Rite.” To most of us seeing the film for the first time, in theaters with the requisite outlandish stereo setup that the video release preserves, this was all new music. It’s astounding now, when our audiences achieve repertory literacy at a far earlier age, to discover what Leopold Stokowski and his touted Philadelphia Orchestra put over on Disney and on “Fantasia’s” first audiences 50 years ago. The playing is coarse and inaccurate; as early as the opening Bach “Toccata and Fugue” the strings proclaim their inability to play 16th-note passages together. This was the time when the flamboyant Stokowski was inflicting his famous orchestral experiments on Philadelphia, including ordering the strings not to bow in unison. This created a flowing, gooey sound that seemed to hang suspended with no downbeats. It would be impossible to imagine dancers working in time to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet in Stokowski’s treacly version. As a cultural document, a manifestation of the marketing of serious culture in times past, “Fantasia” has its value. (And has that brand of marketing, for that matter, really disappeared? Doesn’t it linger in the dose of pseudo-cultural pap ladled out daily by Karl Haas on KUSC-FM and its affiliates?) Oh well; just those opening moments, as the ethereally beautiful Stokowski mounts his podium in silhouette and raises his arms to conduct, and the studio lights catch just his hands and turn them to pure gold, you’re sure of two things. One: you’re being had. Two: it doesn’t matter. Then you should check out “Allegro non troppo,” also available on video. Bruno Bozzetto’s 1975 masterpiece was probably meant as a long-after-the-fact answer to “Fantasia,” but it’s a work of animation far better on its own in both concept and execution. Like the Disney, Bozzetto aims his animator’s imagination at a program of familiar pops chestnuts, in a series of contrived scenarios hilarious, loaded with compelling satire and in one instance (Sibelius’ “Valse triste”) authentically tragic. Run his version of Ravel’s “Bolero” after the Disney “Rite of Spring.” Bozzetto’s dinosaurs are the real thing, and he puts them to far better use.

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