ANTONY & THE PIANISTS

TOO HOT TO HANDLE?
My editors at Bloomberg News had suggested weeks ago that the following item would be worth my attention. I never asked why. I fulfilled my obligation last Tuesday with my usual celerity and dispatch. On Wednesday I was informed that my article – honorable though it was – was “totally off the charts” for Bloomberg’s clients. I could have told them that weeks ago.
Antony and Johnsons Drag Disney Hall Into Pop World
Review by Alan Rich
Oct. 16: First of all, there’s the voice, and
it’s a wondrous instrument. It swoops to cavernous depths;
you’re reminded of Erda, the Earth-Goddess in Wagner’s “Ring.”
It mounts to an ecstatic peak, exulting over “a beautiful boy”
in a duet with the shrill woodwinds of the orchestra. This is
the voice of Antony (last name Hegarty, Sussex-born) who
stood before a jam-
packed Disney Hall audience on Tuesday night in Los Angeles,
gowned in floor-length white silk and feathers, and held that
crowd — gay, straight and teetering — spellbound. That is what
he and his group have been doing since “I Am A Bird” pulled
down their first album prize in 2005.
Explain Antony? Nobody is on solid ground. He is 37, chunky
in a friendly sort of way. As a stage singer, his gesticulations
are, well, grandmotherly. The voice carries it all, and that is,
as we were saying, something phenomenal: an artist’s palette of
amazing variety. Too much of a good thing? Yes, truth to tell;
midway through Tuesday’s concert, a certain sameness did settle
in. One longed for the sound of a coloratura soprano, or a basso
profundo.
He has kept interesting company: one lachrymose duet (“You
Are My Sister”) with Britain’s one-time renegade songster Boy
George, a duet with Icelandic pop-genius Bjork. The “Johnsons”
were a small instrumental ensemble (three strings, guitar and
piano); for the current tour they have grown to a 19-piece
orchestra. Elaborate orchestrations, sometimes to excess – string vibrato
conflicting with vocal vibrato —  were
by the up-and-coming 27-year-old New York composer Nico Muhly,
whose name seems to pop up in every glowing report on the future
of new music.
“Shake that Devil,’ Antony’s latest EP, has just been
released on Secretly Canadian records; the next album, “The
Crying Light,” is due in January. The current tour plays New
York’s Apollo Theater tonight and then returns to England, with
dates at London’s Barbican on October 30 and 31.
(Alan Rich is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions
expressed are his own.)
PIANISSIMO
András Schifff is now halfway through his survey of the Beethoven
piano sonatas – at Disney Hall and several other international venues. The
absolute technical sheen of his playing is both thrilling and off-putting. My most vivid pianist memories embrace concerts by  Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, Serkin, Gould, Brendel, and they include smudged notes and blurred phrases by all. (I can show you the note Rachmaninoff missed in the “Appassionata” in Symphony Hall Boston in December, 1940; these things stay with you.)
Listening to Schiff demands a different set of receptors; you wait for the machine to falter, and you know it’s not gonna happen. I am awestruck by the clarity of his playing, the absolute command. I can return  home from his concert with, say, the D-minor fury of Opus 31 No. 2 still rattling my bones, and take down my favorite authors on Beethoven – Tovey, Kerman – and find that, yes, it’s all true.  The Schiff performances itself had presented me with no point of view only the notes flawlessly revealed. The discs – he’s recording the Sonatas on ECM – are like so much software. His observations on the music – published conversations with man-of-all-cultures Martin  Mayer, a perfect foil – are sleek and unchallengeable; theyproceed on from the performances in this airless continuum.
At least you can’t fault Mr. Schiff for generosity; his encore last Wednesday was Bach’s “Italian” Concerto: not just one movement but the entire work; perhaps next Wednesday we’ll get the “Goldberg” Variations. On Saturday night Piotr Anderszewski followed suit;. Beethoven Bagatelles were his lagniappe following his Bach recital: not one, of the Opus 33 set, but the entire kaboodle. This was his first time here in three years: too long away.
It was a fabulous concert. Anderszewski has, indeed, found the way to create airspace around a contemporary piano delivering Bach, both reinventing and preserving the expressive genius within the music and reshaping it for our time. I think I know my Bach, and yet I found myself, at this concert, constantly led toward rediscoveries large and small: the chromatic, sweeping, descending lines in the A-minor Prelude from the “Well-Tempered Clavier” (and the terse, ensuing fugue, on the same subject that also served Handel and Mozart), the assemblage of massive structures that begins the G-minor “English” Suite, the infinite tragedy that this pianist drew by momentarily delaying a single note, the F-sharp leading tone to the Sarabande in that Suite. This concert, like the Schiff, drew a near-capacity crowd to Disney Hall – a large percentage of it, I was happy to note, young.
JACARANDISSIMO
I must try to restrain my use of words like “exhilarating” in dealing with the Jacaranda Concerts but it’s not easy. The series’ fifrh season began last Friday, relocated to the new Broad Stage this once, where the mighty forces of the CalArts Gamelan could fill the stage with Lou Harrison’s music in the first half – in clear and resonant sound, by the way — and the wondrous machinery of Harry Partch’s inventing could rise up from the orchestra pit to accomplish the same, in hearts and spades, or however the expression goes, in the second.
Lou Harrison told me, at our first meeting in, I think, 1981, that being a composer in California meant that you didn’t have to be afraid of writing pretty. The hour’s worth of his music for solos with gamelan were greatly pretty in the sense of gorgeous, seductive melodic lines propelled by tremendously complex rhythmic impulses. The series climaxed in a breath-stopping sequence: Alyssa Park’s violin, Tim Loo’s cello and Ted Askatz’s small drum  in glorious – yes, exhilarating – argument in Lou’s Double Concerto, against the massed hardware of the Gamelan.
Came intermission, and then the extreme contrast of the John Cage “Quartet in Four Parts” played by Jacaranda’s Denali Quartet, music of intense restraint (the strings playing without vibrato) following  the previous music of intense exuberance.  It was a beautiful performance, I guess; I couldn’t help thinking it was somewhat lost on this occasion. (At the post-concert party the Denali played a quartet by another American pioneer, Ben Johnston, to much greater effect.)
Up from the bowels of Broad came the Harry Partch assemblage: glorious glassware, the towering Bass Marimba, Diamond Marimba, Harmonic Canon, Kithara – all rebuilt from Harry’s original designs by the local hero John Schneider and played upon by latter-day Partch avatars under Schneider’s direction. Talk about exhilaration…what they played was “Castor and Pollux” from the “Plectra and Percussion Dances,” music performed in 1953 and not again until last year. Wow and triple wow!!
Nobody is going to argue for a place for Harry Partch’s music among any kind of masterpiece galaxy. The half-hour of “Castor and Pollux” that sent the Jacaranda crowd home happy consisted of a lot of rhythmic banging, in square, predictable patterns,  on these gorgeously designed sound machines, great fun to watch and to listen to. The music is, of course, tied to these machines. Of melodic shape or design there is none. There doesn’t have to be. Music has its mainstreams of great creators who fashion a repertory of masterpieces and near-masterpieces to fill our concert halls, opera houses and rock palaces. It speaks for music’s power that it can also spawn these other creative spirits, these fashioners of alternative theories (with compositions to back them up). Harry was one of the best.

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