Rousing the Dead
Christopher Rouse burst upon the scene in the 1980s, with a barrage of orchestral works bearing titles such as Bump, Phantasmata and Infernal Machine and, in sheer decibel power, living up to their names. Later on, he was to master the more eloquent modes of expression; a cello concerto (commissioned for Yo-Yo Ma and the L.A. Philharmonic) and a couple of string quartets expanded the range of his expressive powers while exploring the gentler regions of the audible spectrum. In his 90-minute Requiem, however, which received its world premiere in the capable hands of our Master Chorale and attendant participants under the enlightened leadership of Grant Gershon at Disney Hall a weekend ago, the volume knob was back at 11, and Mr. Rouse was back in his old stomping ground.
The idea here is to intersperse the Latin verses of the Requiem with poetry reflecting on those verses – English, or the Italian of Michelangelo: a plan reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s in his War Requiem. A solo baritone, the eloquent Sanford Sylvan (Mao Ze-Dong and Klinghoffer in the John Adams operas), sang haunted poetry: Seamus Heaney on a child’s death, Siegfried Sassoon on suicide, Michelangelo on his own immortality. The chorus bursts through, most often ferociously and buttressed with the customary Rouse battery of multiple percussion. A children’s chorus sits immobile, and joins in after 80 minutes with celestial, forgiving harmonies as the baritone soothes an audience’s injured eardrums with a prayer for peace.
The skill here is exceptional; not a nut or bolt is out of place. Some people I have heard from – fellow critics, music students, ardent concertgoers – have been stirred by the piece. I was not. I enjoyed the contraptions, the splendidly concocted blasts, and the way Gershon’s vocal and instrumental forces kept everything in balance in that superb hall. I enjoyed all that exactly the way I enjoyed the sheer physical impact in that marvelous new Korean horror film, The Host, and if I had my choice of which work of art to experience again, I’d go back to the film any five times instead of once to Mr. Rouse’s Requiem.
It was quite the week for new music, actually, on both sides of Grand Avenue. Also at Disney Hall, a few days later, there was a much more rewarding premiere, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Helix in its first U.S. hearing, music first written for a BBC peace celebration led by Valery Gergiev. Actually, this is the piece that Salonen had sneak-previewed at the Apple store in Santa Monica a few weeks ago to show off his use of the software program known as Sibelius. I wrote about it at the time.
The new piece is shorter than anything by the real Sibelius. What it is, is a nine-minute acceleration of a simple note pattern – a helix, in other words – and what is wonderful about it is that it is (a) a tough-minded, complex piece of contemporary orchestral music and (b) delightfully easy to follow, no more complex than (quite similar, in fact, to) Ravel’s Boléro.
South on Grand
Across the street at Zipper Concert Hall, there were two new-music events worth mentioning (if not for the same reasons): one worth every minute, the other worth few if any.
For someone who claims (in his biographical notes) never to have heard the Beethoven Ninth Symphony live, Mark Robson certainly demonstrated a wise and varied musicianship in his “Piano Spheres” concert on Tuesday night: music from all over the map, spread over the keyboard, invoking fond memories of old friends here and gone.
Framing the program was enchanting, rowdy music by Louis Andriessen at the start – his 1983 Trepidus, short, clangorous, jumpy music – and a clutch (four listed, but I counted six) of Gyouml;rgy Ligeti’s Etudes Pour Piano at the end, marvelously wise, complex aphoristic pieces from the composer’s last years. In between came more treasures of varying value: first, a set of Morton Feldman pieces from 1959, tiny, very soft, very freely composed for each hand, the Feldman we tend to forget in the light of the hourslong pieces of his last years; then, John Cage’s The Seasons, his ballet score transcribed for piano, music of greater discipline than most of his familiar scores, somewhat like Satie and, again, very beautiful. Also on the program was Mauricio Kagel’s “Piece of Filmmusic”: pure Dada, something involving a wrestling match between a semiclad pianist and a metronome, a holdover from when people went for that kind of thing.
The people of a chamber ensemble known as Nimbus have been bombarding me with reminders of their existence; Thursday night found them too at Zipper, and there was, therefore, reason to check them out. Nimbus, along with its music director, Young Riddle (that’s his name, and do you know your Harry Potter?), believes in themed programming; last Thursday’s theme was PALIMPSEST in large letters, which is the ancient practice of writing manuscripts on top of pre-existing manuscripts, with the earlier writing erased but sometimes recoverable. Mr. Riddle seems to have been attracted, perhaps unduly, by the fact that one of Yannis Xenakis’ minor compositions bore the title Palimpsest, and decided to build part of his program around the matter. He enlisted a CSUN colleague, Dan Hosken, to compose an electronic overwrite over the Xenakis and to make both works the gist of the concert.
The program began with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra in the boiled-down version by Felix Greissle, in a performance by the ensemble that I will kindly extenuate as sight-reading. Then came the Xenakis, then the Hosken+Xenakis. Oh, I forgot, there were “mystery pieces” before each half: unannounced solo pieces (Stravinsky, Steve Hoey) to give the (very small) audience a swell tease. Mr. Riddle talked on and on, most of his words swallowed. This was easily the worst concert I’ve been to this year. No, the year is young; make that two years.