A new season begins, in this land of no seasons. Three of our local orchestras sprang into action last week: two with brand-new music, one with older music of newer outlook. The week before, the much-admired Kronos Quartet brought in some new music, in a program appropriately titled “Nuevo,” most of which was quite comfortably, sometimes even thrillingly, old hat. A phenomenal percussion outfit, Tambuco, out of Mexico City, wore that hat in several numbers, and sent it skyward.
Costa Mesa’s Pacific Symphony, in Carl St. Clair‘s splendid hands, offered a world premiere, sort of: Tobias Picker’s Tres Sonetos de Amor in the first hearing of their orchestral setting. (The voice-plus-piano version had been heard in Minneapolis in 2000.) Picker is a known quantity hereabouts; his Fantastic Mr. Fox remains one of the bleakest pages in the L.A. Opera‘s annals; about his new opera, Therese Raquin, on the San Diego Opera docket next March, the advance word is equally bleak. None of this slows the flow from Picker’s well-worn pen, of course; his chosen manner of expression — a tepid wash of mild chromatic harmony lit from within by flashes of old melodic shapes smilingly remembered — is the sort of thing orchestras and opera companies like to place before anxious subscribers to prove that fears of bodily attack from new music can often be groundless. An operatic setting of An American Tragedy, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, is currently on his worktable.
The “love sonnets” are Pablo Neruda texts, and it is apparently Picker‘s whim to devise music as far removed as possible from the sense of this warm, spiky poetry. This perversity is further underscored by a tendency to smash contrapuntal lines against one another in differing keys, a trick Stravinsky was exercising to better effect as far back as his 1911 Petrouchka. I found these songs — about 15 minutes’ worth — drab beyond redemption, the more so in the chasm that yawned (an applicable word) between words and music. Nathan Gunn, a young baritone of great sensitivity (Marcello in the Bowl‘s La Boheme last summer), found more music in a brief tune from Don Giovanni, which he offered as his encore, than in anything before.
St. Clair, now in his 13th season as the PSO’s music director, has pulled the orchestra onward and upward. His programming suggests a growing respect for the ability of his audiences to countenance novelty, even in the one-spoonful-at-a-time dosage that works like these Picker songs represent. I am counting the days until William Bolcom‘s huge setting of the William Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience (all of it!) turns up next February. I like the production values at Pacific Symphony concerts, despite the abject ugliness of Segerstrom Hall itself. St. Clair talks well to his audiences, offering musical insights without condescension; in the final work on last week’s program, the descriptions of episodes in the gnarled scenario of Richard Strauss‘ Ein Heldenleben (from which I fled, as is my wont) were spelled out in supertitles in a further (if foredoomed) effort to help the work make sense.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra also had a novelty of sorts, incongruously spatchcocked between Bach and Mozart at its inaugural concert: Les Espaces Infinis by the orchestra’s new composer in residence, Pierre Jalbert. New Hampshire–born (despite the name), Jalbert studied with George Crumb, information that might lead to higher expectations than this insipid 10-minute work fulfills. Its “spaces” are decidedly “finite”; it‘s the kind of piece where you know after about 10 seconds exactly where it is going and how: a thickening of the swirl, a quickening of the pace, some kind of resonant climax and then a regression to the soft glow as at the start. Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude did it all, and better.
Better yet was the Bach, with everybody‘s favorite violinist, Hilary Hahn, as soloist in the E-major Concerto and collaborator (with LACO’s principal violin Margaret Batjer) in the D-minor Double. I worried at the start at the brisk tempos in the E-major; I needn‘t have. The give and take in the fast movements, between her solos and Jeffrey Kahane’s superb orchestra, were the stuff of high-level argumentation; the long cantilena above Bach‘s solemn, meditative orchestral foundation made of the slow movement a discourse on matters too profound for words. (Bach might disagree on this, however, since he recycled the same slow movement, plus a text for four-part chorus, in one of his cantatas.) The conversation between soloists in the Two-Violin Concerto was the discourse of two noble, loving and intensely dedicated spirits. Nobody I know of these days plays the Brahms Violin Concerto better than Hilary Hahn; very few play the Beethoven as well. Now she has a claim to stake in Bach as well, and she deserves every note.
Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is as loathsome as any music I know — not merely ugly (as in Ein Heldenleben) but deeply offensive. The work‘s origins are part of my problem with it: an anthology of lithe, insidious medieval poetry on the varied joys of self-indulgence, dating from Germany’s golden legacy and lasciviously turned into a latter-day saturnalia for beer-slurping, marching hordes in lederhosen and white knee socks, a nation‘s heritage re-sculptured to the glorification of the fascist ideal, Albert Speer’s architecture made audible. This is music that should be kept away from small children, and from their parents as well.
The rest of my problem is that Carmina Burana, insidious in its every measure, is also irresistible. Choosing it as the major work on the Philharmonic‘s inaugural program is a matter between Esa-Pekka Salonen and his conscience; he told the audience at the Friday-night casual concert that Carmina Burana was the ABBA of classical music, and I guess that’s okay. He and his massed forces — including the soprano Harolyn Blackwell, a living wonder — played and sang the bejesus out of it. At the end the audience leaped to its feet and cheered, as did the storm troopers back in ‘37, when the work was new.
Before had come the suite from Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, dazzling, slashing, thrilling music from a composer still young but in full command. Of all the “new” (i.e., less than a century old) music of the week, this was the one piece that made statements strong and relevant to its time, that used the orchestra‘s resources with skill and imagination, that demonstrated a willingness to take the art of music to someplace new and worth our exploration. It was, by the calendar, the oldest music of the week and, by every other criterion, the newest.