In the summer of 1979, in a madcap decision that I still don’t regret, I succumbed to the urge to go bicoastal. (The term, I think, had just been invented.) New York Magazine, whose music critic I had been from its founding, had just cloned itself on the West Coast, and I thought it might be interesting to cover – and, perhaps,  even compare – the musical life on both coasts; the plan was to commute for a year and then turn the Western territory over to an eager recruit and return to the relative sanity of a power job in the seat of all power.
It’s twenty-two years later. The aforementioned clone is now a distant memory,  but I long ago accepted the reality of myself as a dug-in resident of the West Coast. That’s okay as long as I have the carfare for an occasional visit back to the real world past the mountains. Friends on both coasts still ask: what do I miss the most.  My only answer strikes me as somewhat superficial. I miss the energy around  a New York performance: getting there by bus or subway or on foot, finding some acceptable food within a block or two, hanging around to schmooze over a drink or coffee afterwards. You can’t do that here.
The comparisons are, indeed, deep-seated and fascinating. In California people drive their cars to concerts, park close to the halls in relatively cheap (by New York standards, at least), accessible garages. After concerts or operas, they drive straight home; late-night dining, where people gather and discuss the music they’d just heard, was then, and is now, an arcane practice. The benign climate has an interesting effect on the way people dress for musical events. Even on classier occasions – an operatic opening night, a symphony-orchestra benefit – you can always spot a sport jacket or two amid the black ties, perhaps even a patch of denim.
I find this agreeable. The way the casualness infiltrates some of the music-making also makes its points. The phenomenon of the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s famous cash cow and local landmark, probably couldn’t be duplicated anywhere else on earth. The fare:  eleven weeks of concerts, from July to mid-September, with two programs a week given over to substantial classical repertory, one program of showtunes and lighter classics, given twice to near-capacity crowds often culminating in a sensational fireworks display, a jazz night and other programs ranging from full-length opera to third-world folk – all in a space whose 18,000 seats are filled as often as not — in an outdoor area for dining in styles ranging from Glyndebourne to Yankee Stadium. Again, the benign climate makes it possible; in my 22 years here I remember only one rainout.
And this all takes place, mind you,  not in the sylvan reaches of a West-Coast Tanglewood, but in an urban enclave easily reachable by car or public transit, walking distance from, say, Grauman’s “Chinese” Theater with its famous footprints, not far from where major freeways intersect. There are things wrong with Hollywood Bowl, as the more curmudgeonly of local critics sometimes delight in pointing out. A wine bottle will sometime roll down a concrete stairway; an LAPD  ‘copter  will intrude overhead. You couldn’t mistake the ambiance for an all-Beethoven night at Carnegie Hall, or at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center for that matter, but the fact remains that Beethoven nights (or Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninoff) at the Hollywood Bowl can draw an audience the size of four Carnegies – even more when the program includes, as it often does, a dramatization of the “Battle Symphony” complete with marching bands and fireworks.
I decided to remain.
The Continental Divide is an invisible line that snakes across Rocky Mountain peaks, south through American deserts and into Mexico. On one side of the line, rivers flow east toward the Mississippi and beyond; on the other, they head toward the Pacific. Something similar to this dividing line, if not so exactly positioned, exists in music as well. There is New York, facing (or, perhaps, glaring) eastward toward Europe, its musical history firmly implanted and  its outlooks shaped by the European generations from Charles Pachelbel (son on the Canon guy, who organized concerts of  chamber music in Lower Manhattan in 1736) to Kurt Masur, (who performed Beethoven only yesterday). There is California, facing west, its major composers as likely inspired by the exotic scales and rituals of Japan and Indonesia as by the academic precepts carried in across the  Europeans who braved the Sierra barrier. You can still, of course, invoke a time when California’s musical roster numbered such notable Old Country expatriates as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Yet two of the West’s most indigenous creative spirits – the Los Angeles-born John Cage and Oregon’s Lou Harrison – studied briefly with Schoenberg and then rejected everything he had taught them.
California’s music began to shake itself free from old-masterdom on the day in 1912 when the 15-year-old Henry Cowell scandalized a San Francisco audience with his music that involved whomping down on a keyboard with full forearm or fists. Not much later, Cowell proclaimed the one uniquely Californian message: forget Europe, forget sonata form and tonal structures and all that classical history. At Cowell’s urging, Harrison and Cage  rummaged around in San Francisco junkyards to find new kinds of resonance: brake drums and old trolley-car springs that could be grouped into percussion orchestras. Even as California became home for great Europeans chased from their native lands by Nazi ideologies, California’s musical originals stood firm.
Something of that cussedness, that sense of freedom, abides. It is the spirit behind a remarkable educational project – funded, would you believe, by Walt Disney out of his long-standing secret passion for creative originality. Founded in 1971 on what was then an isolated hilltop in the middle of nowhere – suburbia, alas, has caught up – the California Institute of the Arts (aka CalArts) guides its students through the brand-new mysteries of electronic music, multimedia blendings of sound and video and, above all, the interweave of Third-World, Pacific Rim and you-name-it into a new, composite musical language. To the south, the San Diego branch of the University of California has, at one time or another, encouraged young composers to fashion serious new music out of natural sounds – waves crashing on the Pacific shore, a gurgling stream in the  Sierra.
That need to challenge the accepted definitions, to astonish, to move far afield – that spirit that was born with Cowell and Cage  and lives on in Lou Harrison – remains the prime spirit in California music. It’s the spirit that moved a gathering of young composers up north, in the early 1960s,  to form the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to explore the complex possibilities of the newly-devised electronic apparatus and to see how it might translate into genuine music. One member, the young Terry Riley, dreamed up a piece, which he called In C, where any number of players could follow its small, repetitive patterns any number of times and transport an audience into something close to a trance state.  From In C came the music we know as “minimalism.” One of its most successful practitioners, John Adams, was moved to migrate  to California from his native New England after reading the writings of John Cage, thus bringing the California spirit around full circle.
And yet…when one of Adams’ most ingratiating works, the burbling, euphoric Grand Pianola Music had its New York premiere in 1983, you couldn’t hear the music for the booing. If there’s any shape to the musical divide, it’s the obsession in New York’s musical circles to take its serious music seriously. Is it a matter of crowding? The tensions in the ongoing battle on either side of the Fourteenth Street dividing line? The surfeit of critics, some of them employed on make-or-break publications, that stills the creative impulse and strikes fear? Morton Subotnick, electronic guru and one of the founders of both the San Francisco Tape Music Center and CalArts, put it this way not long ago. “It’s easier to try to be original in California,” he said, “because nothing out here matters.”
Something out here, however, matters a lot. Behind the cutting edge, there is a solid musical structure that seems to expand exponentially – like the creeping urbanization that bids fair to transform the entire coastline into a single mall, but far more rewarding. At the northern end there is Seattle, home of strong lumberjacks and stronger coffee, now also metamorphosing into an American Bayreuth with its hot-ticket stagings of the Ring cycle. At the southern end, an hour south of Los Angeles,  there is the extraordinary rebirth of Orange County, long the butt of right-wing japes, now harboring the high-adventure “Eclectic Orange” festival plus a splendidly born-again opera company. In between there is the rejuvenated San Francisco Symphony under the exuberant leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas – an extraordinary and rare instance of the exactly right fellow in the right job in the right place. Across the street there is the San Francisco Opera, probably the most traditional of all West-Coast musical amenities, but now headed for an interesting shakeup under new management. And then there is Los Angeles.
“What could you find to do there, in that cultural desert?” my New York friends asked when I made my foolhardy move 22 years ago. As they asked, the great Carlo Maria Giulini had taken over leadership of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, offering music-making of legendary eloquence at the time when his predecessor,  Zubin Mehta was launched into alienating most of New York. Giulini’s stay was short, but it served to awaken Los Angeles to what it meant to have a major orchestra in its midst. Ernest Fleischmann, the Philharmonic’s general director of comparably legendary status, guided his audiences as well toward the new-music adventuring in the energetic “Green Umbrella” series, chamber-orchestra performances of cutting-edge repertory. While the New York Philharmonic’s similar series, “Horizons,” petered out after a couple of years, the “Green Umbrella,” at 20, still sells out most of the time.  Now, too, there is a Los Angeles Opera worth taking seriously; I write these words still aglow from the start of the company’s 16th season, its first under the leadership of Plácido Domingo.
All these adornments to the West Coast cultural life have their counterparts back East, to be sure. You can hear Plácido, after all, in practically every opera house in the world; there are major symphonies in every city on the map. Yet there is something out West that matters. New York’s musical calendar is so crowded that it doesn’t really matter that its Philharmonic signs on the aging and not-very-important Loren Maazel; people will wait for some other orchestra to come to town and just go there instead.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles, that condition hasn’t set in. Perhaps it will in another fifty years, but for now Esa-Pekka Salonen matters a great deal to Los Angeles, and Michael Tilson Thomas to San Francisco. In Long Beach, down the coast from Los Angeles, there’s a shoestring opera company that has earned a loyal following for productions that shouldn’t pan out as well as they do, but always do – Elektra in a Malibu beach house, most recently. Up in the hills near Santa Barbara, an easy hour’s drive from Los Angeles, the little Ojai Festival has been doing sell-out business for over half a century, making music in a bandstand in a park. The music is, and always has been, new; Ojai’s gods are Boulez, Stravinsky, Copland, even Cage. It thrives because its music-making is so good, but that’s not always enough to keep an enterprise afloat. It thrives, because people have learned to care – enough to endure rough park benches and noisy crickets and insistent birds – enough, just so there’s music.

This entry was posted in Musical America. Bookmark the permalink.