Bright Prospects, Even Without Havergal

I was accosted at a recent concert by a well-dressed chap of a certain age. My mission, he informed me, was to throw the weight of my words behind his campaign to convince the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s management that the Gothic Symphony of Havergal Brian was, out of all the world‘s fund of musical masterpieces, the only worthy choice to inaugurate the new Disney Concert Hall. I thanked him and went on my way. Three days later the mails produced a lengthy screed from this same gentleman, reminding me of my solemn duty and declaiming his praise of Havergal Brian in terms worthy of the work itself — some two hours of grandiose foofaraw for orchestra, vocal soloists, choruses, brass band and, for all I know, an offstage choir of vacuum cleaners.

My correspondent had already exercised his powers of persuasion on the Philharmonic’s Deborah Borda, who replied that the work in question was nothing but “third-rate Elgar.” That might just be unduly unkind to Sir Edward, or perhaps a little overkind to our Havergal — who, by the way, died in 1972 at the age of 96, with 32 symphonies in the can. (All 32, by the way, are due for a new recording series on, wouldn‘t ya know, Naxos.) To rescue you from the suspense this account of mine must surely cause, let me assure you that at last week’s press conference announcing the Philharmonic‘s plans for its first season in its new hall, the name of Havergal Brian was once more — as usual — among the missing. We’ll get back to what was not missing in a paragraph or two.

The annals teem with the names of artists of modest expressive qualities but a certain talent to simulate expressivity with crudely attractive paraphernalia: the musical equivalent, perhaps, of paint-by-the-numbers. Russia‘s Nikolai Medtner was one; his perfunctory note spinning earned the adoration (and cash) of an Indian maharajah. The most prolific practitioners of the mellifluous nonentity are the Brits: eminent Victorians, eloquent Edwardians, some of recent origin. (Heard any Robert Simpson lately?) Their music seems to echo the wrenching groan of English church organs, although the textures also owe something to last week’s Yorkshire pudding re-warmed. They tend to compose symphonies, bushels of symphonies. They are the inherited burden that today‘s splendid young firebrands — Thomas Ades, Mark Turnage, those guys — must live down. They do, however, inspire wild adulation. In my indispensable copy of Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel, the cockroach archy queries a moth on why it is so fond of flying into flames. “i think he‘s nuts,” says archy, “but i wish there was something in this world i wanted as much as that moth wants to fry.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Philharmonic’s announcement of its inaugural season in Disney Hall is worthy itself of orchestration for brass choirs, etc. The program is, for starters, a diplomatic masterwork, a fantastic interweave of the many ways to capture and hold an audience. Considering the fact that audiences would flock to the new hall (for the first season, anyhow) even if the programming were nothing but Nutcrackers and Messiah sing-alongs, there is a high level of courage in this planning: world premieres galore, a Green Umbrella series loaded with true grit, a grand celebration of Berlioz — who is not everybody‘s favorite Romantic, but whose Symphonie Fantastique will soar this time. The adventurous Green Umbrella concerts are in the big hall, by the way, not across the street at Zipper. That, with the lure of the new hall itself, just might widen a few horizons among the new listeners. There’s an interesting series called “First Nights,” which will present music that infuriated the critics at first — The Rite of Spring, for example — along with discussions as to why this happened.

There are labels and titles all over the place, in fact; somebody at the Philharmonic knows a thing or two about promotion. There‘s a “Creation Festival,” which obviously includes works of that name by Haydn and Milhaud but also new works by Magnus Lindberg and Liza Lim. Mahler’s Second Symphony turns up, as we all knew it would, and that work, too, has been subsumed under the “Creation” rubric.

In another sense, however, the whole season‘s outline gives off a creative aura. It was somebody’s smart idea, for example, to thread through the programs a collection of pieces about building: Morton Feldman‘s Rothko Chapel, Liza Lim’s Ecstatic Architecture, and two works, Yannis Xenakis‘ Metastaseis and Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique, both written specifically to mingle sounds and architectural shapes. Two series demonstrate an admirable awareness of the world outside Frank Gehry‘s shiny walls: “Sounds About Town” and “InsideOutside”; both have to do with collaborations with other music in the neighborhood — including an admirable bow to the jazz scene — and with other organizations that fight the same fights: the Getty, for example, and the enterprising Crossroads School.

I note some interesting interweaves. Michael Tilson Thomas guest-conducts the Philharmonic for the first time since 1985, when, after a series of really bratty, self-indulgent performances, Ernest Fleischmann gave him the boot. Franz Welser-Most also has a program. In both cases, Esa-Pekka Salonen will return the visit, as guest on both the San Francisco and Cleveland podiums. (Cleveland, it’s no secret, once actively wooed Salonen for the post Welser-Most now occupies.) Simon Rattle returns, this time with his own Berlin Philharmonic, to the venue where he began his ascent to international stardom. Christoph von Dohnanyi is down for a guest shot; Lorin Maazel arrives with his New York Philharmonic. That gives us a look at the Cleveland Orchestra‘s three most recent conductors; wouldn’t you trade them all for one week with George Szell?

It‘s a thrilling, exhilarating list, masterful in its counterpoint of high adventure and “something for everybody.” Can’t you just taste Alfred Brendel and Matthias Goerne at work on Schubert‘s Die Winterreise? The Berlioz Fantastique re-created with the complicity of Britain’s Theatre de Complicite? (Remember its Shostakovich at UCLA last year?) A new work — a chamber opera, no less — by the fabulously gifted Osvaldo Golijov, still riding high after this season‘s Pasion? Monteverdi’s Vespers, with his baroque brass racketing through the new, shiny spaces? Okay, master builders: It‘s your baby now, and a healthy one so far.

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