THE SPICE OF LIFE

: Eye surgery in the morning, Figaro after dinner: there’s nothing like a little variety, so they say, to add spice to ones life. The surgery went well; bye-bye cataracts. All else pales before The Marriage of Figaro. Those kids at UCLA really got it right.
Peter Kazaras brought the school’s opera program into its own  with an astonishing Falstaff a couple of years ago; Figaro was even better. The musical ensemble was a joy to watch (Kazaras’ doing) and to hear (Neal Stulberg’s razor-sharp baton). The look of the stage was mostly make-do, but good of its kind; the most dangerous moments in the action – the deployment of the characters in the final scene, so that the right person gets slapped at the right moment – came off capitally. The two arias usually omitted, for Marcellina and Basilio in the last act, were allotted their proper place this time. It may be out of place for an elderly critic to go gaga over student singers a fourth his age, but there was so much delight in the work of Lauren Michelle, the wonderfully wise and composed Susanna, and Leslie Cook, the airborne Cherubino, that I would risk betraying Dr. Yuri’s eyeball surgery if I let them pass unnoticed. Two performances remain, this Friday and Sunday, crammed into UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. There are two casts, and Neal Stulberg assures me that the second ensemble is every bit as fine as the group I saw. Since he is, himself, responsible for the magic of this truly splendid event, I tend to believe him. Halos are in order, all around.

AND ONE MORE HALO, please, for Catherine Uniack, who burst into a crowded roomful on Sunday afternoon with the news that Gloria Cheng’s disc had, moments before, pulled down the Grammy that we all knew she greatly deserved – a disc on TelArc full of music by our great friends Esa-Pekka, Steve Stucky and Witold Lutoslawski that Gloria had played last September at her Piano Spheres concert. Cathy is the Executive Director of Piano Spheres, wonderfully devoted and hard-working; the concerts, founded by Leonard Stein, are the background of this Los Angeles  piano movement – are we ready to call it “school?” —  that gives us this marvelous sense of exploration, that encourages Esa-Pekka to compose for Gloria, Mark Robson to plunge headlong into staggering Messiaen confrontations, Vicki Ray and Susan Svrcek to push back against the barriers of what constitute normal music for their instruments. I mean…I’ll drink in the Andras Schiff Beethoven concerts alongside the next guy, and there’s a great new Murray Perahia disc out on Sony, but this week the halos go to Cathy Uniack…and to Gloria.
…and to Vicki, whose Piano Spheres concert last Tuesday was one of those grand potpourris that she puts together better than anyone. It began with Stravinsky dry and crackly, the Two-Piano Concerto from 1935, when there wasn’t a gram of meat on those bones, but the crackles were now-and-then amusing. Julie Steinberg, San Francisco’s own Vicki Ray, was the second pianist at stage left. Slight, agreeable works by Rand Steiger and Fred Rzewski formed some packing material; John Adams’s Eros Piano, played without its orchestral backing, seemed somewhat trivialized by the loss. At the end came Julia Wolfe’s 1993 my lips from speaking, long and jammed with pretensions, somewhat trivialized by the presence.

JACARANDA CONTINUES its wonderfully inscrutable ways, providing its chosen celebrant with the most sumptuously embroidered birthday box in which to celebrate in absentia. There was no Messiaen on Saturday’s Messiaen celebration,  and none at next month’s; the ecstasy is in the zeroing in, and in the wisdom of Patrick’s devotional program notes – page after page this time, all worthy of publication, and with one special delight: the way the deviations in the spelling of “Franck” versus “Frank” swung back and forth like a censer at St-Sulpice.
I can learn to live with a modicum of Fauré (provided it’s the Requiem), and so much of Saturday’s program tended to enhance awareness au fond of church-pew construction. Then, from the most unexpected source, came the evening’s great Surprise: a Piano Quintet by Louis Vierne, composed in 1918. Here is a piece whose very pedigree inspires fear and loathing: a French organist, thus bearing the stigma of César Franck; blind from birth plus a few other afflictions, father to a family of offspring mostly killed in WWI; struggling to compose this one chamber work with his brother helping to fill in the note-heads on the manuscript paper. And then, voilà!
I am not ready to proclaim this Quintet of Vierne any kind of long-lost masterpiece. Surely the element of surprise has entered into my reaction to the work. I found it a considerably attractive work, the more so in its dark, rich, haunting slow movement and its lively, shapely finale than its somewhat over-eager first part. If I had a recording, which I don’t, I would gladly give it some study. All I know for sure so far is that musicians I have come to trust and admire – Jacaranda’s Denali Quartet plus the pianist Steven Vanhauwaert – have given the work a serious and devoted performance, and that music I had expected to curdle in my eardrums on Saturday night failed to live down to expectations.