Fiddling on Grand
Thursday was chamber-music night on Grand Avenue: indoors with the Calder Quartet in Zipper Hall, outdoors with the Kronos Quartet, plus Wu Man and her magical pipa a short walk down at the Water Garden in California Plaza. The timing was sufficiently staggered so that you could take in both programs. Both were produced in association with the Western Arts Alliance Conference that was going on all week, which meant that the audiences included numbers of incredulous-looking members in suits along with the rest of us ordinary Californians.
The Calder Quartet – violinists Ben Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violist Jonathan Moerschel, cellist Eric Byers – grows in depth and expressivity, as chamber ensembles must. Their residence at the Colburn School continues, with more public concerts scheduled next season as Colburn becomes a full-time graduate school; their affiliation with Juilliard also continues, establishing them as our first bicoastal quartet. Their participation on Thursday was only half a program, but it included a beautifully shaded, sleek reading of the Ravel Quartet, full of nuance and insinuation and lovely half-lights. Their other music consisted of a curious segue – the adagio from a late Shostakovich quartet blending into the final movements from the Second Quartet of Christopher Rouse: music the guys have played before and probably the best music by Rouse I have yet heard. I had to forsake the rest of the program, a set by the Billy Childs Jazz-Chamber Ensemble, to make the trek to the Kronos.
That, as always, was full of fun and mystery, a program of many short and exotic pieces, studded with attractive names – Terry Riley, for one, and something I heard through the capricious sound system as “Laguba Laguba by Berman from India.” The incredible energy behind Wu Man’s playing of her equally incredible, towering stringed instrument came across as always, but was sometimes laid waste by the sound system that seemed to coagulate everything. The image I got was of strands of pasta unstirred in the pot and stuck together. Amplification at California Plaza has never been kind to the sound of strings, solo or in small groups, and much of the exquisite tracery of Wu Man’s instrument – or, for that matter, the splendid work of the Kronos behind her – had to be taken on faith. Still, these admission-free concerts, which this summer have included such splendid explorations as an evening on the Harry Partch instruments and, still to come on Sept.15, a gamelan program, are part of what makes this city tick.
Of all the really bad music that survives in unaccountably frequent performances, it is the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff that seems to me the least deserving. Bad enough that its ascendancy to even greater fame in recent years has rested on a film – Scott Hicks’ 1996 Shine – which itself is based on a pack of lies. The concerto itself is a scrapbook of big, noisy pianistic ideas, each a catchy moment in itself but none of them with the cohesion that drives the attention forward. The Second Concerto of a decade before is so much the better work, not only in the richness of its basketful of grand tunes but also in its impulse as a piece of music, moving forward toward a climactic point and then properly letting go.
Still, Number Three seems to possess some degree of survival power. A good-looking pianist at work on its clattering nonentities indeed fulfills many peoples’ ideal of what musical performance is supposed to look like, in a way that a less demonstrative musician – Jonathan Biss in the Beethoven Concerto, say, earlier in the Bowl season – might not. The video screens of Nikolai Lugansky’s finger work during his performance, last week at the Bowl , of the Rach Three – as it has come to be called since that movie – did, every now and then, take on the look of pots of pasta aboil. (Sorry, I seem to be stuck with that metaphor; it comes of writing hungry.) Furthermore, Mr. Lugansky did fulfill that ideal: a good-looking pianist at work, strong-minded as well as -fingered, capable of wading through all that you-know-what and emerging with trousers dry. Kirill Petrenko was the evening’s conductor.
On his own, Mr. Petrenko led the Philharmonic through the First Symphony of Shostakovich, a work full of adolescent nose-thumbing but many grown-up charms as well. The symphony seems to be about growing up, in fact; by the time we reach the slow movement, the composer has begun to preface every new idea with a “but seriously?.?.?.?” and it suddenly becomes very beautiful, very tragic in a 19-year-old’s way. Later there comes a portentous solo for timpani – perhaps the first such animal in the repertory – and a diabolical ending soon afterward. How to resist? Some people put down this First Symphony; I don’t think you can really know the inner Shostakovich unless you take this small, imperfect but genuine work to heart. I did, and it seemed to clear the air quite nicely.