STILL AT IT: Some of you may wonder whatever happened to Martin Bernheimer or, in general, to the brand of ho-hum, above-it-all discourse he used to dispense, in the guise of music criticism, here at the L.A. Times. Rest assured, Martin is apparently alive and well, and so is his venomous pen. He is currently perched in New York, whence he dispatches his observations on that city’s musical life to the Financial Times of London. Certain key words in his vocabulary – “artsy” above all — sustain his chosen position, high on some imagined peak, looking down. Here is his utter failure to comprehend Peter Sellars ’s brilliant evaluation of Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments,” – first done in New York before the “Green Umbrella” performance at Disney – and his covering of that failure with his signature snide negativism.

“Apparently distrusting both text and score, Sellars illustrated Kafka’s abstractions with mundane domestic rituals accompanied by artsy black-and-white  projections (photography by David Michalek). Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nutall enacted the bad-boy director’s simplistic manoeuvres with conscientious bravado. They performed brilliantly, bravely, tirelessly. The barefoot soprano, dressed in a floppy flannel shirt and slacks, did a lot of miming and mugging, also ironing, scrubbing, stretching and crouching. The barefoot fiddler, similarly attired, provided earnest shadow-play. Still, the result was distracting at best, pretentious at worst. Sellars managed to reduce Kurtág’s fierce poetry to silly prose.”

To me, and to the admirably large audience that showed up in Disney Hall for this spellbinding event, caught the spirit, remained remarkably silent as if participating, this was an affirmation of the genius of Sellars, something I have not always been moved to acknowledge.  It affirmed his unique power, to see deeply into convoluted music and to find its visual counterpart, the core that enables it to reach an audience. Dawn Upshaw’s voice has become almost a part of Peter’s art,  a miraculous counterweight: a sound not entirely pure, maintaining a “human” edge that he and we can hold onto. I listen with delight and awe to a tape of my own personal ”discovery” of Upshaw, a Schubert recital at Symphony Space in 1986, the sound of angels, and trace her growth, the gradual deepening. (And wasn’t that close to the year that the charming, shy Kurtág showed up at Ojai, his first-ever American experience?) The “Fragments” are small points of daily life and, above all, of daily pain, mirrored in the mundane activities on stage, most of all in the rural rag-tag costumes, even made to fit somehow in the citified splendor of Disney. The visual aspects of the performance, the activities on screen and the domestic activities of Mom Dawn down front, I found neither distracting nor pretentious; simply and honestly, they underlined the ordinariness of everything else on that stage and bound them all together, unforgettably.

IN DUTCH: There was to be a three-concert Festival of new music from The Netherlands at REDCAT last weekend. Unfortunately some of the performers were imprisoned at CalArts by smoke that shut down I-5; their concerts will, I presume, be rescheduled. I did hear the final concert, by the E.A.R. Unit, from which I departed in somewhat bedazzled state. Part of that came from attempting to focus on one of the six composers, a certain Richard Ayres, cricket star, who (his bio tells us without cracking a smile) ran away from home, became a cabin boy on a freighter transporting china-clay, whose crew read “Finnegans Wake,” performed John Cage — and who is now selecting music for a manned journey to Mars. That was about the charm level of the concert: i.e.: high. Louis Andriessen, everybody’s favorite Hollander, contributed music for violin and piano in unison, creating the ringing overtones of the resultant “hyper instrument.” Yannis Kyriakides’ “mnemonist 5” sent the mind a-twirl with projected dancing syllabic permutations NA MA VA SA. The E.A.R. Unit, now 27 years old, has something like 500 world premieres under its collective belts. Of its five members, Amy, Vicki and Erica go all the way back. Where would we be without them?

EVEN SMALL: Esa-Pekka Salonen calls his new string quartet, his first, “Homunculus,” the small piece that contains all the elements of a large piece. “I was really trying to put my best music into the piece” he told the OC Register’s  Tim Mangan in a great interview worth the search, and he succeeded. The work missed its OC appearance; a death in the family of a Johannes Quartet member forced a cancellation. A heroic substitute violist, Lesley Robertson of the St. Lawrence Quartet, crammed the part in time for last night’s performance at Royce Hall, where the Johannes shared the program with the Guarneri Quartet in its farewell appearance. Blessings upon her. More on the Guarneri another time. Salonen’s Quartet lasts a tight fifteen minutes. The writing for strings is, for the most part, dense; at the start there is a dark, sweeping outburst of melody. On one hearing I heard this as the most Sibelian of any of his works; I mean this not pejorative, only in the sense of prevailing dark texture. Small, explosive. Incidentally, in the interview Salonen let the cat out of the bag as to his next project listed as TBA, April 9, 2009. A violin concerto, to be danced.

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