Things Past

Reviving Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King was the latest of XTET‘s many good deeds. Perhaps this hardy band of local freelance players, founded in 1986, should have been renamed “IXTET Plus Conductor and Stage DirectorDesigner” for its major work on last week’s Monday Evening Concert at the County Museum, but its value over the years is beyond mere counting. More people should have been there — out front, I mean.

Fashions change. I remember two performances of Max Davies‘ (as he prefers to be known) expressionist shocker in my first year in California: one at CalArts and one concocted by Rhonda Kess, an ambitious local mover of fond memory. Now the work has faded from the repertory, and that’s too bad. Could it be that music about madness — as opposed to merely mad music — has become something of a redundancy?

Donald Crockett led the vivid performance at LACMA, with the remarkable John Duykers as the mad George III in bedraggled nightie, howling and keening, galumphing around the stage as he cajoles his imagined pet birds to sing along. There is nothing in the world quite like this lurid fantasy; Schoenberg‘s Pierrot Lunaire figures in its ancestry, as does Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maitre, as do all representations of operatic madness from Monteverdi onward. The wit in this piece is devastating; who else but Davies would vouchsafe a foxtrot version of an aria from Handel‘s Messiah? And get away with it? There is also nothing in the world quite like John Duykers, an actorsinger of awesome versatility, from a magnificent command of Baroque drama to Philip Glass’ next opera still on the worktable. (He was also the Mao Tse-tung in John Adams‘ Nixon in China, but, alas, that role doesn’t appear in the set of excerpts that Adams conducts at the Philharmonic this week.)

On the next night, at Susan Svrcek‘s “Piano Spheres” recital at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church — beautifully played, well attended — it was deja vu all over again, most of all in the ambitious final work, Frederick Lesemann‘s Concerto for Piano and Electronic Tape. The work dates from 1980, commissioned by USC to celebrate its centennial. I heard it then, and found fascination in the interplay between the solo instrument (performed on that occasion by Leonard Stein) and the accompanying tape full of the whiz and whir and bloop-bleep that outsiders at that time referred to as “Star Wars music.” That, we were all sure, was going to be the music of the fertile and rosy future. You could even buy a gadget at Radio Shack, for a mere $500, that could create a believable repertory of those sounds to go along with your live music making. (I had one, and ditched it after about a week.)

Lesemann’s piece was no less strong and imaginative at last week‘s hearing, but it was a relic even so. Electronic music has come far. It’s no longer merely a clever accompaniment that you can peel away from live performance; the magic word nowadays is interaction. To a surprising degree, this work rattled the same bones as two other major scores on Svrcek‘s program: Ferruccio Busoni’s overstuffed, dry-as-dust Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach of 1909, and a Sonata from 1923 by the painfully misguided Russian pseudo-modernist Nikolai Roslavets, a wretched pastiche of Scriabin‘s worst mannerisms. Never mind; a bit of really bad music now and then can do wonders in clearing the air.

It cleared the air, in this case, for an even larger chunk of authentic Scriabin later in the week, a wad of 10 — count ’em — Piano Etudes, performed in what sounded like one breath by the singular young pianist with the singular name of Lang Lang. I was drawn to his UCLA concert, despite the threat of all that Scriabin, by the remarkably listenable way he had delivered a similar horror, the notorious Rach 3, at the Hollywood Bowl last summer.

There‘s something of a musician here, I suspect. It lies hidden at the moment behind a scrim of acquired affectations: the grimaces and winsome smiles, the between-the-notes hand gestures. It hides as well behind a style of music making applied onto the notes from the outside: Chopin’s B-minor Sonata with new dynamics for every phrase, the Brahms G-minor Rhapsody (as encore) pounded to a pulp. At 18, he has much to learn and, apparently, a fair amount to unlearn as well. But the technique is there, and — in the bull-roarings of the Scriabin D-sharp minor Etude and the Balakirev Islamey — you had to stop breathing for a minute or two to take it all in. In the age when freak performers with clever managements can go platinum, it‘s reassuring to be bowled over by some genuine musical promise once in a while.

Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam, which ended the Kronos Quartet‘s concert at UCLA the weekend before last, is a strong, distinguished work that also represents something of a new direction for Riley. It lasts about 40 minutes, and the second of its three movements is on Kronos Caravan, the group’s latest CD. The Adam is the 16-year-old son of the Kronos‘ David Harrington, who died on Easter Sunday, 1995, while mountain climbing on Mount Diablo. The music — immensely sad and, above all, loving — rises to a frenzied funeral march but settles again to a serene vision. There is a sense of continuity here, stronger than anything else of Riley’s that I know. The first movement unfolds as a set of variations over a simple theme. The progression becomes inexorable; the Bach Chaconne comes inescapably to mind.

The ensuing movements bring on a new jolt; the “Dies Irae” chant mixes into what might be a New Orleans funeral, and the persistent dance rhythms seem as much a celebration of a radiant 16-year-old‘s life as a lament at its termination. At the end I felt wrung out; can brand-new music really have this power?

Yes, it can.