COMMENCEMENT EXERCISES: Not with a whimper but a bang, the new musical year has begun gloriously. Sunday’s crowd at Disney greeted Esa-Pekka Salonen’s onstage arrival as a Second Coming (which, in fact, it nearly was, considering his two months away). Mozart’s C-minor Wind Serenade had been scheduled to open the concert and I regretted its absence; its rhapsodic slow movement, with the horns, would have been the more fit lead-in to the elegies of Arvo Pärt’s new Fourth Symphony. The Impresario Overture, however, caught the festivities attendant on Salonen’s return.
Imagine, Arvo Pärt seated in our hall! sharing with us the deep, plangent richness of his new work – titled “Los Angeles” after other angels than ours. Its musical textures are of angels’ wings: smooth, delicate, elegant, the beauty that breaks hearts (in music as simple as his Fratres and in the grander, imposing structures like the John-Passion as well).
Amazing, the texture of the work, from the deep, rich pool of sound – strings, a magical harp, the most alluring whispers from percussion — that draws us into its depths at the start. There we stand, at the edge of something dark and beckoning. This is music of enchantment, of entrapment, difficult to associate with the austere minimalist master. This time he has set the trap, and we are his.
Thirty-seven years separate this new symphony from its predecessor. Number Three is the work of a young modernist embedded in Eastern Europe’s hell-raising; Number Four is the journey’s end (or beginning) of a mature master at peace with his art. Its sounds – a string ensemble plus alien sounds profoundly invoked – are meaningful and richly beautiful. Its moderst scoring and quietude will probably not earn it wide circulation; its presence among us enriches our world. So, in fact, does all its composer’s music.
My friends Bill and Elaine, who know the inside of my brain better than I do, and shared the derangement of that brain during the Jacaranda Concert the night before, descended upon me at intermission and begged me to leave, to escape the onslaught that hearing the Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto so soon after the Arvo Pärt Symphony would surely wreak upon my troubled cerebellum. I bowed to their superior counsel. I have no doubt whatever that Manny Ax played the bejeesus out of Brahms’s tortured. tortuous passages, and offer my congratulations both to those who endured his work, and those who did not.
BIRDS, BELLS, SPELLS, AND MORTY: Jacaranda’s program looked daunting on paper,; the music turned out even more in actuality. Its power took flight in the unbridled fantasy of composers fixated upon infinite distances. I am not at all sure about greatness; what delighted me more was the sense of insinuation, of an abiding invitation to inundate oneself in the splashes of color and sound (the one fused to the other). From Tristan Murail, at the program’s beginning and end, there was music to tease, to jangle, to smile. From George Benjamin came the sheer nonsense of violas wrapt around one another. Messiaen was celebrated by more of his goddam birds. The playing, too, was goddam exquisite; what a violinist, that Joel Pargman! What a colorist, that Gloria Cheng at the piano! Two singers – Elissa Johnston whom I’d heard before and Timothy Gonzales whom I’d hadn’t – made fabulous musical drama of a silly early Messiaen number. The church, Santa Monica’s First Pres, was, as usual, jammed; these are just the best programs, ever.
The programming genius of Jacaranda was exactly the kind of unpredictable enterprise that Betty Freeman loved to encourage, and her place in the back row at the church ws tragically empty this night, a week after her death. There were so many rumors in the first days after her death last week that everybody got some of the facts wrong, myself included. She did not die in a hospice, but at home, with a few family members. One thing that is pure Betty: Fanny Freeman, her daughter-in-law, wrote to tell me that the last music at her bedside was by Harry Birtwistle.
The second of Morty Feldman’s two pieces titled The Viola in My Life was the first of four “American Originals” at this week’s Monday Evening Concert, and by some distance the most enchanting. Kazi Pitelka was the soloist, backed by Xtet, and I wish I had gone home after that. “American Original” seems to stand for “American Long-Windedness,” and has ever since the days of Lish McGillicuddy. Alvin Curran’s Schtyx came accompanied by the same progam note that you get with the disc, which affords you two copies of somebody’s sophomoric essay in pseudo-Joycean navel contemplation (surely not Paul Griffiths, who is otherwise accredited with the notes). Two Fred Rzewski pieces ended it: one blissfully brief, the other – though encouragingly titled “Pocket Symphony” – somewhat overstuffed.
YO-YO: The fortnight that ends for him with the Inaugural and the SuperBowl began somewhat more modestly with Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul in its West Coast premiere. (Yo-Yo Ma had already performed the work at Tanglewood.) Slice it as you will, the work is more of the same old Golijov, and that should be enough for anyone. It celebrates its composer’s multi-nationality: the Argentina here, the middle-Eastern there, the marvelous sense that blends colors, creates slashes of sound, and lets even the most hearing-deficient of us know that Golijov is a master at synthesizing musical styles, and that the cello – in the hands of a master of the bow – is exactly the instrument to do these talents justice.
That said, Azul (the title means “Blue”) reveals no new vistas. It is good, solid, Yo-Yo Ma stuff; it calls upon a couple of extra instruments – hyper-accordion, stretched-out drums – a kind of portable Silk Road – to fill in those exotic sounds. Considering ticket prices at Royce Hall last Sunday, and the size of the crowds pushing their way in, it wouldn’t be polite to suggest that both Yo-Yo and Golijov could probably toss this stuff off in their sleep, but honestly…”
Never mind. When it came to the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, which ended the program, Mark Swed is full of old shoes. That was a truly great performance under Jeff Kahane, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra bright and brassy and Allan Vogel’s oboe keen and urgent and one of the best orchestral noises in the land.