CLASSCOL

Memories of last Wednesday’s unspeakable weather were handily dispelled that night at the Music Center, in the spell of enchantment cast by Barbara Hendricks. When did we last hear, anywhere in town, a program of pure art song — no operatic arias, no empty vocal showpieces — so handsomely delivered? Four years ago, by Peter Schreier, on a similarly rainy night? Nothing more recent comes to mind. Hendricks had sung with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic the week before, in a generally unsatisfactory, if not actually mindless concert. This time, with the excellent collaboration at the piano of Staffan Scheja {cq}, she ruled the stage. Nobody can pretend that the 3,000 seats of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion are any kind of venue for an art song program; the tragedy of the dropping of a subsidiary small concert room from the plans for Disney Hall becomes apparent at times like this. Hendricks helped, graciously summoning all hearers to fill in the spaces down front (and even directing stragglers to empty seats). Her art helped even more; her beautifully chosen program, and the way she sang it, turned the vastness of the place into intimate surroundings. The magic of Hendricks is her seemingly infinite power to react to the poetry in these songs. It’s that amazing skill she has for coloring the voice from an intuition about the composer’s own reactions to the text. It doesn’t do merely to sing the words of Schubert’s miraculous “Nacht und Traeume”; you must draw your vocal colors from the soft, dark clouds that play over Schubert’s setting, the sudden desolate shiver as the harmony topples into a chasm midway. It doesn’t do merely to fling forth the outcries that end each verse of Hugo Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land,” unless you can also bring the pain of those words into your own tone. The marvel of Hendricks’ program was the way she fulfilled all these hopes, with beauty of voice and high intelligence as well. Lots of opera singers drag small bouquets of art songs into their concert programs, along with the larger bouquets of showy blossoms from grand opera. It somehow establishes, in their own minds at least, their stature as “serious” artists, their own high purpose. Great singers willing to specialize in German lieder or French chansons — such as made up all of Hendricks’ program — are rare right now. Twenty years ago they flourished in abundance. Now Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has retired; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey never seem to pass by this way; Peter Schreier is building a second career as a conductor. And so the wonderful Hendricks is virtually alone. UCLA doesn’t have a single art song recital this eason; Ambassador’s vocal series offers the usual mixed grill of aria-plus-song programs. What Los Angeles needs, and achingly so, is the proper small and comforting setting for concerts such as this one: not the vastness of the Music Center or Royce Hall, not the impersonal blandness of the Japan-America or the garish bad taste of Ambassador. The final miracle of Hendricks is that she created the illusion, even in the hostile surroundings of the Music Center, that we had all been transported to the most beautiful, intimate concert hall in the world, there to hear the most beautiful, intimate music. The Japan-America does work for certain kinds of concerts where a kinder, gentler atmosphere might actually be jarring. It works very well for the Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series, which continues successful. By all odds the crowning glory of the most recent program (February 3) was Tod Machover’s Viola Concerto (subtitled “Song of Penance”) written for Kim Kashkashian and played by her with Stephen Mosko’s excellent podium support. Machover is a comer. With his curls, dimples and boyish grin, he has become a self-made media hero, marvelously voluble about his own work and about the new horizons he keeps on creating with all his electronic gadgetry at the M.I.T. Media Lab on the banks of the Charles. Fortunately, the quality of his work exonerates the manner of presentation; nobody can fault a composer just because he comes on strong, if the product justifies the presentation. His sci-fi opera based on Philip Dick’s “Valis,” recorded on Bridge, has caught on. Cheeky, eclectic, and devastatingly clever, it contains zillions of notes and doesn’t waste one. The Viola Concerto is cut from the same cloth. The deal here is that the solo viola is actually an electronic creation, with the usual strings but also with miles of cable connecting it to a bank of computers. The soloist’s sounds are, thus, drastically modified, as are the sounds of the surrounding instrumental ensemble. To thicken the brew even more, a tape of a singer, her voice also processed, is stirred in. Daunting as this sounds, the piece is immensely likeable. The sounds of the electronicized solo viola are so rich, and often so “human” in their impact, that just the sound of the piece is interesting enough. But there’s more: a genuine throb that goes beyond matters of technology, survives its own gadgetry and comes out sounding like some kind of great music. Machover has written another piece of similar intent, this time for electronic cello. We get to hear it during the upcoming CalArts Contemporary Music Festival at the end of March.