The Year In Night Music

Photo by Walter SchelsPianists: Two of the world’s best began and ended the Philharmonic year at Disney. For starters, Mitsuko Uchida – who does for pantsuits what Olivier used to do for Hamlet – lit magical lights through all five of the Beethoven concertos. At the end, as these words fall onto the press, the supremely imaginative young Norseman Leif Ove Andsnes comes to town to do similar service for more Beethoven, plus Mozart plus Grieg. Betweentimes, with the high adventure of the ongoing “Piano Spheres” concerts at zippy Zipper Hall, it has been a town that old man Steinway would have drooled over.Paradoxes: Management of the County Museum turned blind and deaf to the
world-famed Monday Evening Concerts on its premises, declaring that such events
— a cultural landmark actually since 1939 – will henceforth have no place within
this sacred institution. Simultaneously, a brand-new series of similarly enterprising
musical events – Jacaranda in Santa Monica – has in two years built its audience
up from scratch to near capacity, offered challenging out-of-the-way programs
including brand-new works, and made liars out of LACMA’s glib naysayers.
The Best New: It was the year of great new sets of songs greatly sung.
Peter Lieberson led the Philharmonic, with his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at
his side, in a cycle he had composed for her of settings of Pablo Neruda poetry,
songs in which the love of a poet for language and a husband for a sublimely gifted
wife mingled in dark, haunting lyrics. For Dawn Upshaw (not his wife), the remarkable
Argentine/Israeli/American composer Osvaldo Golijov created Ayre, a 40-minute
cycle of mysterious texts in ancient Hispanic dialects, accompanied by throbbing
guitars and howling woodwinds that turned all of Disney Hall one night into a
place of irresistible passion. And in San Francisco there was John Adams’ Doctor
Atomic
, not songs but an opera about Dr. Oppenheimer and his Bomb, in which
the most moving moments were songs indeed: of fear and conscience, as a man of
troubled morality confronts the enormity of his own inventive genius.
The Not-So-New: Composer Tan Dun seemed to come up with a new piece – in
person or on DVD – at every turn, or perhaps it was the same piece under a new
name. The Master Chorale launched his Water Passion, 90 uninterrupted minutes
consisting to large extent of sloshing, gurgling and trickling water in large
containers onstage, interspersed with text lines from the Gospel of Saint Matthew.
The lines were fine; the impact of the sloshing, on elderly prostates out in the
audience, left something to be desired and you know damn well what.
The New Toy: Once the standard Zarathustra and the Saint-Saëns Symphony
No. 3 had been disposed of, there wasn’t much left to engage the Philharmonic
and the Disney’s new pipe organ simultaneously. Out of the rubble came a Sinfonia
Concertante
by one Joseph Jongen, a work of ghastly drear. Most successful:
the annual Halloween observance, this time a revival of the great old Dracula-style
silent shocker Nosferatu, with organist Clark Wilson’s own imaginative
noodling as musical counterpart.
Opera Undressed and Overdressed: Without my suggesting for a moment any
innate merits in the music itself, the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Gounod’s
Roméo et Juliette was easily the season’s best capturing of the spirit
of a hopelessly bygone work – not only for the intelligently maintained nudity
in the bedroom scene (with an extremely watchable Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón)
but for an overall “let’s get on with it” attitude rare and admirable in romantic
French opera. The next French opera, Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse, which
opened the fall season, had its spirit by contrast laid on with a heavy trowel,
its humor disastrously unfunny.
New Faces: With a minimum of pre-appearance hoopla, an unknown new conductor
turned up at the Hollywood Bowl in the season’s last couple of weeks and scored
an impressive victory over crowds and the powers that be. His name: Gustavo Dudamel,
24, from Venezuela, where he already has his own orchestra. His European career
is already under way, and the Bowl that night was crawling with talent scouts.
Rumors have it that he’ll be back next summer with his own group. Count the days.
Old New Face: Heinrich Biber, German Baroque composer of the generation
before Bach, creator of wildly virtuosic solo violin music that a Britisher named
Andrew Manze played at Disney Hall a couple of weeks ago and all but set the place
on fire. He records for Harmonia Mundi.
There’s Hope for Us Yet: In a town where great chamber music seems to be
a thing that people reminisce about around roaring fireplaces, there were actually
two wondrous performances of Beethoven’s Quartet in C Sharp Minor (Opus 131) this
season: the Penderecki Quartet at LACMA in May and the Juilliard Quartet at Disney
Hall in October. I heard them both, and have survived to tell the tale.