Notes on an uncommonly splendid week at Zipper Concert Hall – and what a valuable asset to musical life that handsome, small room has become!
The second in the reborn Monday Evening Concerts drew an almost-capacity crowd, despite there being not a familiar name on the program. Steven Stucky, who curated, had chosen well; what was most compelling was the spread in styles, from the academic/contrapuntal (James Matheson, Sean Shepherd) to the youthful/kicky (Andrew Norman) to three short works (Philippe Bodin, Ana Lara, Brian Current most of all) in which the voice of an original composer with something important to say could be clearly heard. The performances, by members of XTET led by Donald Crockett, all of them locals, offered further assurance that if it should happen that serious composition manages to survive, it will be properly performed. I particularly liked Current’s Faster Still, the final work, an exhilarating study in changing tempos, with a killer part for solo violin (Movses Pogossian). In our previous chat, Stucky had described the piece as “Elliott Carter writing arpeggios,” which stops short of dealing with the energy of the piece, the startling jolts in its changes of pace. (Alternating Current, perhaps?) The composer lives in Toronto; he is worth watching, even from afar.
The best of Susan Svrcek’s “Piano Spheres” concert the next night dealt with worthwhile nostalgia, music from the ’50s, ’60s or thereabouts in styles bygone but still vivid. She began with our old friend Ingolf Dahl, once of USC: the Sonata Pastorale of 1959, neo-classic, jazzy here and there, thoroughly charming. A set of short works by the great loner Carl Ruggles was just as thoroughly uncharming. Later came a clutch of Polish works: a set of miniatures by Artur Malawski from 1947 and, at the end, the 1953 Sonata No. 2 by Grazyna Bacewicz, powerful, defiant music by one of the most significant composers to break through Stalinist dogma in post-WWII Poland.
On Friday, the Calder Quartet, which has been in residence at the Colburn School this season, drew the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at Zipper, and for good reason. Even more amazing, the near-capacity audience held its absolute silence during the Calder’s stunning performance of the Shostakovich Quartet No. 15, that heartbreaking work constructed of six continuous near-pianissimo movements in a bottomless pit. The crowd was young, some very young, and whoever assembled it should hire themselves out to other organizations in town who present serious concerts of quiet music. The program also included Arcadiana, a set of delicious, slinky bits by Thomas Adès – “each an evocation of paradise,” says the wicked composer, and a perfect comedown from the Shostakovich – as well as the second of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartets, delivered rather harshly at first (why leave out the first-movement repeat?) but with the slow movement entirely the “contemplation of the starry sky” that Beethoven himself noted. These Calders, all four USC-taught and -mellowed, are ripening into one of our prime resources.
At neither of those last two important events was our Times represented. Wonder what happened to that old expression “newspaper of record.”
Sooner or later, every opera company must take on Tannhäuser; the good news is that our local company’s responsibility is now behind it. Here’s what you need to know about this production currently at the Chandler. At the Bacchanale, near the start, the stage is full of Wagner’s steamy music, with bodies to match – nude, perhaps, but the lighting makes it difficult to discern, or to care. Out from the pile climbs Tannhäuser – in modern dark suit, red jacket. He walks over to a (!) grand piano, sits and begins his serenade to Venus (properly joined, from the pit, by the solo harp Wagner actually demands). Eventually, Tannhäuser is extruded from the Venusberg and finds himself back on Earth in a snowstorm while a Shepherd nearby sings of the balmy Maytime breezes.
What we have, you know by now, is one of those update jobs – the work this time of director Ian Judge and designer Gottfried Pilz – brought on by the Wagnerian sensory overload, the obsession that his music embodies the philosophies of religion, love, hate, damnation, redemption, dissonance and harmony, and is therefore subject to “anything goes” on the dramatic stage. I can’t imagine a stage spectacle more soporific than Wagner according to the Master’s original designs, and our museums teem with evidence to bear this out. But must the alternative insult the eye? The common sense?
You’d think so, from the recent Kirov Opera excursion to Costa Mesa, and now this Tannhäuser, which delivers Wagner’s perfectly agreeable (if hopelessly naive) early stage piece in a production that violates the word of Wagner’s text as well as its sense, for no discernible reason. Must the second-act “Hall of Song,” greeted for its grandeur in Elisabeth’s interminable aria, turn out an overcrowded hotel lobby with inadequate Sitzplatz for the guests? Whose idea, the drab warehouse setting for Act 3, lit with a kind of neonlike electronic green like the first generation of computer monitors, through which the Pilgrim’s Chorus trudges like zombies?
The music is okay, just okay. Peter Seiffert is the Tannhäuser with the modern mustache and the reedy, accurate voice; you have to wonder at the pheromones in that utterly sexless voice nonetheless capable of mounting that Venusberg. Petra Maria Schnitzer is a melting Elisabeth, Franz Josef Selig, as the Landgrave, a commanding figure in the Franz Josef tradition. Martin Gantner – stooped, spectacled, balding – is an odd casting choice for history’s poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, the romantic figure in Wagner’s script, but his “Evening Star” is curiously moving for all that. Better than any of this is the rousing musical leadership of James Conlon and the magnificent whoop-de-do of the orchestra’s brass contingent when called for. I wonder, though: If Conlon is serious about building a Wagnerian town here, mightn’t a somewhat larger chorus be in order? Just asking.