Maybe it’s something I ate, or didn’t, but I’ve been feeling unusually good about new music these days, for any number of reasons. The Philharmonic has had Thomas Adès as guest composer/conductor/pianist, and after some concerts there have been crowds – mostly young – pushing backstage to welcome him. Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations), in the new Master Chorale recording on Nonesuch, sounds better every time I play it. The Philharmonic’s new season, which includes a big commissioned work by Kaija Saariaho, is a model of imaginative planning. Osvaldo Golijov’s music conquered on both coasts over the holiday weekend. John Adams keeps at it. It wasn’t long ago that some of the Gloomier Guses among critics were wondering where the Great Ones were. Well, they’re here.
Adès began his visit here at the piano in a Chamber Music Society concert that included Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, and that somehow seemed appropriate: one young man’s exuberance in touch with another’s, the one cramming five notes where one might suffice, the other having one helluva good time making it happen. (I seem to have said some of this last September, when the EMI recording appeared. Schubert was one for revisitation.) It has only been a decade since Adès’ arrival on the scene with the explosive ebullience of Asyla and the nose-thumbing exhilaration of Powder Her Face. The catalog of his works over those years is long and impressively varied, but the marvel with Adès – as with Schubert over the same time span – is the ongoing sense of control in every kind of music he has so far essayed, the way high spirits and magnificent purpose manage to interact, the way you always know what is happening.
On his first “big” Philharmonic program, which he conducted, there was his new violin concerto, bearing the title “Concentric Paths,” in a dazzling execution by fellow Brit Anthony Marwood. What grabbed me immediately in this supremely beautiful and original work was its blend of event and process, the charm of melodic invention and the clarity of its unfolding. Much happens; my memories, after a single hearing, center on a slow movement of haunting, quiet beauty, but are tangled with other moonlit memories from Adès’ opera, which shared the program.
Music from The Tempest filled out that evening: Tchaikovsky’s and Sibelius’ orchestral prettifications of negligible worth, but then a marvelous wad of selections from Adès’ great opera, first done at Covent Garden in 2004. Meredith Oakes provided the libretto, a free gloss on the Shakespearean fantasy that moves the Caliban character to center stage and decks him out with music as close to moonlight as mere earthlings can contrive. In the half-hour Suite at Disney, we were denied this character, but were compensated with the opera’s incredible, airborne Ariel music, flying higher than human throat ought to aspire to but reached nevertheless by the high E’s of the awesome Cyndia Sieden; music of wisdom and regret for the Prospero of Simon Keenlyside; and paler but no less haunting moonlight for the young lovers sung by Toby Spence and Patricia Risley.
A few evenings later there was more to admire and ponder, Marwood and Adès in a “Historic Sites” program at the Doheny Mansion: all of Igor Stravinsky’s oeuvre for violin and piano, the music he created or transcribed for his friend violinist Samuel Dushkin – transcriptions of Pulcinella and the Fairy’s Kiss Divertimento, the Duo Concertant and some small pieces. In its own curious way, this was also a memorable concert, music of decidedly unimposing stature made important by the sense of players able to project the message that they, too, were having one helluva good time making it happen.
Over last weekend, as Lincoln Center’s Osvaldo Golijov festival ended with the glorious cacophony of his La Pasión Según San Marcos, Santa Monica’s Jacaranda didn’t do so badly, either. The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, with which the Kronos Quartet (plus airborne clarinetist David Krakauer) first brought Golijov to our delighted attention in 1994, was the centerpiece of an altogether splendid evening of “Pampas, Tangos, Dreams amp; Prayers” that filled Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church to near capacity. Works by Ginastera and Piazzolla rounded out the program with, of course, a decidedly Argentine accent; the clash between these and the whole panorama of backgrounds and derivations within the one 30-minute Golijov work was one of the concert’s many rewards.
This matter of nationality and accent in music is not easily dealt with, and Golijov, with his mingled background of Jewish, Russian, Latino and, currently, Bostonian, has always been uncommonly successful at drawing upon this and making it work in his music. Isaac the Blind deals primarily, of course, with Yiddish ancient history; the clarinets of several sizes stand in for the geschrei of the traditional klezmer band – and, possibly, of the abandoned Jewish mother. Yet it is more than that; already, in 1993, Golijov had mastered the many strands in his own heritage. Surrounded on the Jacaranda program by the intense Hispanic identity of Alberto Ginastera’s music – a couple of songs and the short, powerful Piano Sonata, which more people should play – it became by far the evening’s richest music. Its multinational spirit was handsomely caught by Jacaranda’s resident Denali Quartet – its own membership of mixed heritage including Jewish, Hispanic and Chinese – plus clarinetist Donald Foster.
Resplendent in shirt of flaming crimson, veteran Argentina-born pianist Eduardo Delgado – currently on faculty at Cal State Fullerton – performed the Ginastera Sonata and several short works; sweet-voiced soprano Maria Lazarova sang a couple of songs; John Walz performed a short work for cello: a long, varied and rewarding program. From Jacaranda’s enlightened planners, we have come to expect no less.?