1.34 METERS TALL, SHORT ARMS, SEVEN FINGERS — four right, three left — large, relatively well-formed head, brown eyes, distinctive lips; profession: singer — so reads, in its entirety, Thomas Quasthoff’s autobiographical entry on his Web site: a profile in courage and in whimsy. The amazement around this extraordinary figure continues; last week, in his first appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, Quasthoff — the man and his art — filled the space quite amply. In his previous appearances this year, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra indoors, he had sung Bach, Ravel and “Ol’ Man River.” This time he sang six of the dozen or so songs to texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn that Gustav Mahler had written early on while girding up to take on the symphonic dragon. Six more were sung by another splendid singer, the Finnish mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi, whom we had heard earlier this year in other, less-rewarding Mahler, Das Klagende Lied at the Music Center. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic clothed it all with the glowing, pliant sounds of the young Mahler’s glistening orchestrations. By the time Quasthoff had ended the cycle with the mystical shimmer of “Urlicht,” the song that Mahler would later insert into his Second Symphony (but with a mezzo as the solo singer), there was a quietness at the Bowl that held all 6,000 of us in its grip. Great art, great artists, great artistry — they determine their own size.
What ravishing music, these Wunderhorn songs! They offer us early glimpses into Mahler’s workshop, but they take us far beyond. He moved the “Urlicht” verbatim into the Second Symphony, but he also put another of the songs, the one about St. Anthony preaching to the fish, through a drastic transformation — doubled in length, with a whole new middle section — to serve as the scherzo of that same work. Seventy-five years later, Luciano Berio was to co-opt that same scherzo as a “container” for a great tangle of added paraphernalia — voices, other musical quotations, what have you — in his Sinfonia.
But the songs aren’t merely “early” works, of a composer still on the bottom rung; they are rich, deep, sometimes disturbing: raucous and grotesque at times (like the middle movements of the Ninth Symphony), harrowing in their simple beauty (like the Adagietto of the Fifth). Salonen’s Mahler is a familiar commodity; his big-time arrival was with a performance of the Third Symphony (which also contains Wunderhorn music). His work at the Bowl that night wasn’t merely that of accompanist to two fine singers; through those lousy loudspeakers and the noise-infested air, all three created a kind of chamber music writ simultaneously very small and very large. It made people listen, as they don’t always in that troubled venue. It may have even made people forget the overripe awfulness of Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra, which had begun the program on some other planet.
IT WASN’T BILLED AS SUCH, BUT THE MUSIC THE last two weeks on both sides of the Cahuenga Pass amounted to a Salonen festival: four Philharmonic programs at the Bowl and a chamber-music event across the street at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. A rendezvous with dentistry kept me from the last of the Bowl concerts, but the presence of Sibelius on the program softened the loss.
The Ford’s week of chamber music began on Monday with a guest shot from SummerFest La Jolla, Cho-Liang Lin’s annual festival in that coastal paradise. For Lin, Salonen composed Lachen Verlernt (“Laughing Unlearnt”), a short but well-packed piece for solo violin, moving graciously over 10 minutes from broad, contemplative melodic lines to a later outburst of good, solid old-timey virtuosity. (Are there Gypsies in Finland?) Better yet was a return visit of Salonen’s Five Images After Sappho, the flavorsome song cycle first sung by Laura Claycomb at Ojai in 1999, later recorded by Dawn Upshaw, and delivered last week with infinite charm by Heidi Grant Murphy. Following intermission there was Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale — all of it, alas, nearly an hour’s worth — with John Rubinstein’s high-intensity delivery of all three spoken roles, John Malashock’s choreography in case anyone missed the point of the narration, and Salonen leading a best-in-show instrumental ensemble sparked by Leila Josefowicz’s rocket-powered violin at one end of the scale and Steven Schick’s devil-driven percussion at the other end. Nothing surprised me as much as the realization of how much I disliked the piece. I must work that out over the next few days; stay tuned.
Wednesday’s program brought in the year-old New Hollywood String Quartet, a group formed last year and bearing the name of a much-revered ensemble from the past whose memories the new group does not evoke in the least. Like the old Hollywood, the new group is made up of studio freelancers; unlike the old Hollywood, the new group plays like studio freelancers even when it’s on a concert stage. In the Mendelssohn quartet that began its concert, the playing seemed to be about just another gig: slick, proficient and seemingly unaware of the elegant, fond curves that made up the heart of this music. Real movie music followed: a meandering, faceless piece by Don Davis (The Matrix) and, more bearable, some of Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest music, set for string quartet by Randy Kerber.
Two measures into a Haydn trio, and I knew what I had missed from the New Hollywoods. The Ahn Trio — two twins plus a sister, born in Seoul, trained at Juilliard — played their Friday program like angels on vitamins. Maybe Haydn’s E-flat Trio (No. 29, if you’re counting) was the most adventurous music on a program otherwise full of movie and movie-ish fare, but at least these kids played as if they knew what musical adventure is, or can be. For the Haydn, that meant some wonderful jolts as the harmony kept taking weird turns into the middle of next week and the rhythms did likewise. In pieces written for the group by the veterans Maurice Jarre (Dr. Zhivago) and Michael Nyman (The Piano), that meant more of an amiable saunter past the ghost of, let’s say, your favorite café composer of the 1930s; in Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift: Music for Evening Hours, a suggestion might be made for shorter hours.
The kids are great, and you can’t begrudge them the shadow of MTV that falls over their work. Even so, there’s a grand repertory of classical trios out there, which needs all the help it can get.