In March 1984 I lived through a week forever memorable. In Rome I sat in on rehearsals for Act 5 of Robert Wilson’s the CIVIL warS to Philip Glass’ music, at the time when there were plans for all five acts to head for Los Angeles’ Olympic Arts Festival. Then Stuttgart beckoned, where the opera Akhnaten, also by Glass, was having its world premiere in Achim Freyer’s magical production. In Cologne I saw Act 4 of Wilson’s warS, and attended the world premiere of Steve Reich’s The Desert Music. At the end of the week the news came that Los Angeles had scrubbed the CIVIL warS – through a failure of nerve, funding or both. Akhnaten – not the last of Glass’ stage works but the last of the handful with real distinction – gets a performance now and then. The Desert Music abides, although last month’s performance by the Master Chorale under Grant Gershon was, if memory serves, only the second in local history. It deserves closer attention.
It’s a milestone work, the last and largest of Reich’s music for concert stage, in which the buildup through extended repetition is wonderfully illuminated by changes in sonority – as he did with the women’s voices that punctuate the phrase structure in the other large masterwork, Music for 18 Musicians. Desert Music is something else again, a skillful – and, I think, successful – blend of repetitive buildup and a structural plan that is actually symphonic: thematic returns, and even an interweave of text and musical technique. “It is a principle of music to repeat the theme: repeat and repeat again, as the pace mounts”; those are William Carlos Williams’ words, and Reich’s music follows them brilliantly. Chug-chug-chug goes the music with mounting insistence, and the goose bumps rise. The performance under Gershon used a new version, building out the modest orchestra with a contingent of brass. I would have liked to hear the work without Reich’s stipulation that everything be miked, but perhaps that’s a prospect for the new hall if and when.
The concert began with a sampling of early Americana, contrapuntal hymns and anthems from the 18th and early 19th centuries by William Billings for the most part. The news here is not that the infant nation had bred a generation of geniuses that early in its history, but that its citizen-composers could turn out good, serious musical pieces that knew how to obey the rules. The geniuses came later. The Master Chorale’s programming serendipity remains praiseworthy; Grant Gershon has the chops for the job, and the charm as well.
At the Skirball Center (and at other locales under Skirball sponsorship), there was a festival tracing Jewish influences in music – serious and not, present and past. By some distance the most interesting was a revival of Paul Wegener’s 1920 silent film Der Golem, the only one of several treatments of the 15th-century Jewish legend that has survived more or less intact. Beyond the film itself, the golem figure (and its close relative, Dr. Frankenstein’s creature) forms a fascinating study: the downtrodden society – the ghettos of medieval Europe, the misunderstood scientist – creating its redeeming superhero out of common clay.
As the highlight of Skirball’s Beyond Bim-Bam festival, The Golem arrived decked out with a new score by Israel’s Betty Olivero, performed by the clarinetist Marty Krystall with the Armadillo Quartet conducted by Germany’s silent-film authority Günter A. Buchwald. The whole affair was a model of imaginative restoration: a score with exactly the right mix of ghetto folk tune and the deeply colored sadness of a grieving populace. The film itself is a marvel; the shadows of Caligari are everywhere apparent. The acting, with Wegener himself as the lumbering, menacing, messianic monster, is remarkably communicative. I expected a primitive ur-cinematic experience; I beheld instead a creation of genuine power.
Lumbering, menacing, monster: Something else on the musical horizon deserves description in those terms. That would be the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, out of which Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the screaming bejesus at last week’s Philharmonic concerts, Salonen’s final appearances in that house of so-so repute. History ordained the performance. The Third was Salonen’s big doorstep to fame and glory, when he stepped in for the ailing Michael Tilson Thomas at a concert in London in the fortuitously managed presence of Ernest Fleischmann. He led it here to inaugurate his career as the Philharmonic’s music director – and now this. The Mahler Third, you might say, is Salonen’s signature tune, his albatross.
Arguably, it was created to be just that. Don’t get me wrong; there is a special greatness in the piece. It comes at you within minutes, as one wild, gesturesome tune after another rises out of the gloom of trombone agony, beats its wings against the chandeliers and falls back into its own spoor. It comes at you again as the jingling ditties and the brave, noble postman’s horn tell of the beauty of the sunrise. And then there is the end, as a D-major apocalypse lights the lamps farther than the human eye can perceive. To conduct the Mahler Third well – as Salonen did to deserved, thunderous acclaim – is to know how to unleash those forces, and then stand out of their way. Conducting Beethoven, or Shostakovich, demands other kinds of talent. Salonen has those too.
I have to share with you something in the program for a concert I attended last week. Read the quotation first:
We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining ten millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket; we have acquired property . . . and hoisted our protecting flag over that swag. And so, by these Providences of God – and the phrase is the government’s, not mine – we are a World Power.
The writer was Mark Twain, from his many writings satirizing the self-righteous imperialism of the Philippine War. It was set to music – voices and gamelan – by Lou Harrison, and performed by the Donald Brinegar Singers and the Harvey Mudd College American Gamelan at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church as part of the Southern California MicroFest now going on at several locales. I’ll write more about these concerts next week, but the Mark Twain quotation struck me as too good to delay.