THE LEVEL FIELD
Christian Zacharias’ midseason visits to the Philharmonic have a cleansing effect: the right music at the right time. His luggage is filled with 18th-century music: Mozart and Haydn and their pals, symphonies and concertos. He furloughs the orchestra’s heavy brass and the strings’ back-desk players; he stands among the musicians on floor level, not above them on a podium. The sense prevails of a benign chamber music writ large, and of musicianship of the highest order. Whatever he chooses to perform, familiar or not, becomes a discovery of delight.
This time he brought us two Mozart piano concertos, which he led from the keyboard: the early B-flat (No. 6 in the usual listing), with the 20-year-old composer simply spilling forth melodies from one elegant phrase to the next, and the F-major (No. 19) of only eight years later, subtle, mysterious, full of surprises around every turn. Framing these were two off-the-wall symphonies, neither well-known, both hovering at the outer expressive limits of what constituted the unstated rules of the “classical” – and, therefore, polite and predictable – usage of the day.
First came the early Haydn symphony (No. 31 of the 104), known as the “Horn-Signal,” whose forward momentum is subject to constant and hilarious disruption by a quartet of horns who sometimes join in the design but just as often obstreperously out-shout it. If we anchor our awareness of Haydn around the great dozen symphonies of his mature years, we miss the marvelous experimentation of the early symphonies, when his orchestra at the Esterházy Palace was like a sonic Erector set, a glorious toy for trying out all kinds of sonorities and forms. Aided no end by the Philharmonic’s intrepid brass contingent, Zacharias captured the essence of this remarkable work, both the soaring wood notes wild and the overall inventive exuberance. So did he, too, in the final work, a G-minor symphony by one Johann Vanhal, music from around 1770 drenched in the mood of Sturm und Drang (breast-clutching, fist-waving). The key of G minor seems to have been invented to allow 18th-century composers to let down their hair. Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in that key – that great orchestral screech at the beginning of Amadeus — said it even better, and the great No. 40 said it the best of all.
LARGE RED STAR
Two concerts at LACMA last week afforded too-small audiences the chance to welcome back Antares, the enterprising New York chamber ensemble that first beguiled us in December 2003 and in the meantime has been gathering up virtually every chamber-music prize you can mention. The name refers to a large red star in Scorpio (or just as easily to the impressively red thatch of its pianist, Los Angeles–born Eric Huebner); the group seeks to build upon the meager repertory of music for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, through commissions or just by being so good. Since five of the seven works on the two programs were from the past decade, that repertory is not so meager as one might have thought.
Of particular interest, on their second program, was Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy, the chance to sample what kind of music wins Pulitzer Prizes these days. Same kind as usual, I guess: thin, harmless, agreeable, forgettable. Mr. Moravec ladles out three movements describing characters in Shakespeare’s play, one devoted to the line about “sweet airs that give delight” and one a sort of hodgepodge on the music just heard. Music inspired by The Tempest that reflects more of this most precious of dramas’ magic than does this treacly flapdoodle by Moravec ranges from the recent opera by Thomas Adès to the suite of incidental pieces by Sibelius.
Actually, the music I found most attractive in these two concerts, to my surprise, was a 1938 quartet by Paul Hindemith. In general, I lean toward the Hindemith of the 1920s: sassy, sometimes even diabolical, inflamed by the newfangled jazz that was sweeping across Europe, bosom buddies with Schoenberg on one arm and Kurt Weill on the other. Then a soberer Hindemith takes over; the bright, sharp orchestral colors turn Brahmsian. Mathis der Maler becomes his Parsifal, but without the sex. In some ways this quartet is a kind of memoir, a throwback in the best sense to the vintage Hindemith style – not all the way to the opera of 1929 with its nude bathtub scene, but close. Its structural lines are strong and clear; it makes its points tersely, and with high artistry. I rushed home to scour my shelves but found no copy. Fortunately, Amazon had several as low as $1.25. O brave new world!
Two weeks ago, the American Youth Symphony drew a full house at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for its gala program, what you might call an out-of-town tryout for its Carnegie Hall concert last weekend. Tickets went for $100. Veteran violinist, teacher and Philharmonic concertmaster Alexander Treger conducted; he took over the AYS from its founder, Mehli Mehta (daddy to Zubi), in 1998. There was some new music, Dreams and Whispers of Poseidon by the 32-year-old Russian-born Lera Auerbach (with well-remembered Philharmonic alumnus David Weiss on musical saw). Yundi Li, the latest Chinese whiz-bang to hit these shores, played a Chopin concerto. For the rest, spooned over the second half of the program like last week’s warmed-over kasha, there was the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony.
At the post-concert dinner, young orchestral members spoke glowingly about playing in Carnegie Hall – even if buried among 100 orchestral colleagues – as the realization of a lifetime ambition. Board members bestowed awards upon one another and spoke of the vast privilege of transporting the Tchaikovsky Fifth cross-country, fulfilling a historic mission in the very hall where the great Tchaikovsky had led the same work 114 years before – as if the AYS had existed these 40 years for no other purpose.
Perhaps it doesn’t, anymore. Beyond all this money-backed pride is the sad reality
that the AYS is no longer the spirited enterprise of the Mehli Mehta days. Many
young musicians I have talked with tell me that the dropout rate is high, and
that a stint with the AYS is no longer the inevitable career move it once was.
Surely this level of soggy, unbalanced playing is not qualified to tour any farther
than, say, Glendale. I can only hope that those predatory New York critics found
something else to do last Saturday night.