On comparing the body count before and after intermission at last Thursday’s concert, it was clear that the latest visit by the reigning superpianist Lang Lang, rather than the interesting orchestral offerings by the China Philharmonic Orchestra, had brought out the near-sellout crowd to UCLA’s Royce Hall. True, the performance before intermission by Mr. Lang² of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody (plus one of Liszt’s Sonetti di Petrarca as encore) had sent out its share of musical skyrockets. Some, however – your scribe among them – might argue that the program’s real value lay elsewhere.
Most of our knowledge of contemporary Chinese music comes from the four exceptionally interesting musicians who made their way out of Beijing soon after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution and did their advanced compositional study in New York. There is a violinist named Chen Yi in the China Philharmonic, but she’s obviously not the same jolly, roly-poly lady whose tough, gritty compositions we know and admire. These youngsters from Beijing all looked like refugees from a Jenny Craig ad.
Under the able leadership of conductor Long Yu, the China Philharmonic showed its muscle at Royce in some rafter-rattling stuff by Rimsky-Korsakov and Bartók (his China-permeated Miraculous Mandarin). The homegrown offerings began with a pretty, old-fashioned piece by Hua Yanjun, who died in 1950: atmospheric music of little consequence. The second indigenous work, however, was of considerable stature, a song cycle by the 40-year-old Xiao Gang Ye bearing the title Das Lied auf der Erde and, thus, evocative even before a note is struck. Its text, indeed, is drawn from the same collection of ancient lyric poetry that – in German translations that bent their meanings somewhat away from their origins – elicited the great Das Lied von der Erde of Gustav Mahler. (Notice the difference: the Chinese “song from the Earth” against Mahler’s “song of the Earth.”)
It probably stretches a point to suggest that the contemporary Xiao Gang Ye, in this 20-minute cycle of five songs for soprano and orchestra, has returned Mahler’s poetry to its source. Yet the relationship between the two works is fascinating, and so is Xiao Gang Ye’s music: shot through with bright bursts of color and emotional warmth. It breaks through no stylistic boundaries. It may be significant, however, to compare these substantial, well-schooled but basically old-fashioned musical manners with the kick-butt music of Chen Yi and her American-trained “Gang of Four” colleagues, who broke out of their Chinese upbringing so dramatically and acquired their musical manners half a planet away.
As for the proficient and highly decorative Lang², concerns about musical manners still lie concealed behind an ample trick repertory in which the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody fairly gleams by virtue of brevity and superior invention. Musicality mattered less on this occasion; dimples more. Next season he drops in on our own Philharmonic with Bartók’s Second Concerto; that’s a step forward.
To LACMA’s Bing Theater, with music from elsewhere in the world, came the New York New Music Ensemble, excellent and frequent visitors. The Bang on a Can folks had visited David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing upon us earlier this season; time does not soften its jerks, false starts and general juvenilia. Magnus Lindberg’s Ablauf, for somewhat the same instrumentation (clarinet and aggressive percussion) did the same things but on a grown-up level. Most of the program, in fact, consisted of workings-out of unlikely combinations of melodic instruments and percussion, including an uncommonly likable piece by Dorrance Stalvey – Exordium, Genesis, Dawn, now 15 years old but new to me. The one work “normally” scored, the 1971 Piano Trio by Britain’s Jonathan Harvey, seemed so much weak tea in such energetic company.
Too few people seem aware of the extraordinary contribution Dorrance Stalvey has made to our musical life, carrying on the pioneering efforts of these Monday Evening Concerts, which date back to 1939 and have given this city a backbone of awareness of music for small performing forces – very new, very old, set forth on a consistently high level that few communities can match in this country or in many others. Since 1971 (34 years!), Stalvey has planned and guided these concerts virtually single-handedly, with minimal financial support from the museum and only half a page’s worth of outside donors. He is also a composer of considerably above-average competence, and the least, you’d think, would be that he’d insist on having a piece of his on every other program over the years. But no; he has been too busy running this remarkable concert series, bringing in new-music groups from New York, string quartets from Paris, Terry Riley from up in the mountains. He turns 75 this year (next August), and in his honor several of the museum programs include his music. It’s about time.
Not many performers, and even fewer writers, bother much with Ferruccio Busoni these days; Alfred Brendel is a noble exception. Of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, “that monumental fusion of thesis and antithesis, of counterpoint and fantasy, Bach and Busoni, that confrontation of an infinitely subtle range of keyboard colors with a Baroque-style independence from tone-color,” Brendel recommends “a thorough study.” A student of this work, he suggests, “may find himself transported into a novel sphere of instrumental art.” To those willing to trust Brendel’s words (as I always am), and armed with a fair supply of courage and patience, Busoni’s work does yield its rewards; Susan Svrcek and Mark Robson reaped them at the last “Piano Spheres” concert at Zipper, in Busoni’s edition for two pianos. (The work comes in several versions; Brendel himself recorded it as a solo early in his career, although that may require something of a search.) What the work is, is a mammoth (half-hour-plus) meditation on the music that Bach left unwritten on his deathbed, The Art of the Fugue. If that sounds vague, it has been clearly expressed, and so was the performance.