Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolpe?

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLPE? Surely not Eric Huebner!
This is what we know about Stefan Wolpe (Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, 1902– died in New York, 1972) a member of the Bauhaus, he befriended the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters; emigrated to Palestine, 1933; to New York, 1938, supported himself by  teaching harmony to jazz musicians; as head of experimental Black Mountain College, in the 1950s,  he rubbed shoulders with musical polemicists Morton Feldman, John Cage and David Tudor. His First Symphony, commissioned for Bernstein’s ill-advised  “avant-garde festival” with the NY Philharmonic in 1963, was curtailed at its premiere because of “extreme difficulty”; his knock-‘em-in-the-aisles Battle Piece (“Encouragements for Piano,” ‘Battles, Hopes, Difficulties, New Battles, New Hopes, No Difficulties’) was dedicated to Tudor. Beyond all this, he was one of the 20th Century’s  most potent, unquenchably inventive creative personalities.
That work, the Wolpe Battle Piece,  formed one  bright spot of  a major and stirring weekend musical  event up at Villa Aurora, the haven in the Palisades for exiled German artists, currently maintained by that country’s Consulate General. The program’s other major work, no less complex and demanding, was the last of Victor Ulllmann’s seven Piano Sonatas, a hugely affirmative outburst built around variations on a short Schoenberg piano piece. Best known for the satirical short opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (performed in Long Beach last month) composed during his imprisonment at the Teresienstadt camp, Ullmann included in his Sonata the inscription “The right of performance remains with the composer.” Shortly after completing the work, Ullmann was transported to Auschwitz and its gas ovens.
The concert at Villa Aurora was an important event, a gathering of  music created as mortal fears darkened Germany’s skies, valuable and  interesting programming by the Villa’s newly appointed Program Director, Daniel Rothman.  I have never been a strong upholder of Ullmann’s Kaiser , which I hear as excessively contrived Carl Orff, but this Seventh Sonata is something else again, a masterpiece etched in blood. Eric Huebner’s performance – remember his amazing work in Messiaen’s From the Canyons a few months back? – swept through that historic room with its magical seaside vista. As dessert there was also friendlier music: Schoenberg’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano, eloquently delivered, Eric’s astonishing piano command and more of the same from Mark Menzies’ exuberant violin.
SEASONAL  ENDINGS: I’m not quite sure, the significance of guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s once-again choice of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony, as the Philharmonic’s seasonal closer-downer, but he did so, once again, as in recent years, and drew  some noble noise from our orchestra’s brass contingent. Even better was that concert’s opening work, one of Mozart’s most congenial “middle” symphonies – No. 34, in C: a joyous essence,  music that simply  trips over itself  in a paroxysm of giggling trills and triplets. More, please!

TRIVIATA: La Traviata was my first-ever full-scale operatic experience: 1941, with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce, myself enthralled in standing room, with the Met  on tour, in a Boston movie palace. Memory is a fragile substance;  being no ardent admirer of  Mrs. Domingo’s flannelly dramaturgy, I had determined to sit out the L.A. Opera’s current revival of Verdi’s verdant weeper — until the news began to circulate that,  clunky production and all, the Traviata this time around was the one not to miss. That news was, as they say, spot-on.

Marina Poplavskaya had sung her first-ever Violetta in Amsterdam only last month, and sang it here once more. She is a dreamer’s Violetta. Russian by birth, dark and strong of feature (if blonde in her program-book photo). She commands the role, and the stage, with a voice deep and rich, intense and flawless. She does not mess with her music; there was no show-off, interjected E-flat in her “Sempre libera” to woo the gallery; the heartbreak in her scene with the elder Germont arose from Verdi’s music alone, not from any painted-on theatricals. Grant Gershon was the conductor, a company debut long overdue, a master of the essence of sung opera. From their first music together there was an eloquence, an elegance, an exactitude of accent that you dream about – but seldom get to hear — in this music. that raises and maintains the emotional temperature and makes you aware of that rare and wonderful emotional richness that defines  Verdi’s greatness when the accents are sure and loving. As the Germonts father and son neither  Andrzei Dobber nor Massimo Giordano sang  their music as the roles deserved. The Alfredo was brave, but not well advised, to attempt the killer cabaletta (”O mio rimorso”) that wiser spirits usually omit. This was a Traviata about an authentic heroine, and about her power to define for an  audience an authentic human tragedy.
SO FAR — I turn 85 next week — SO GOOD.

Finishing Touches

There was a moment in Disney Hall last night that I will not soon forget. Christoph Eschenbach was playing Schubert’s last Piano Sonata – the B flat, No. 960 in the Deutsch chronological catalog. The slow movement came to its end, a sequence of harmonic magic that seemed to hold the very expanse of the hall in its grip. The ensuing silence was like a physical presence; it seemed to draw the entire expanse of the Hall and its enthralled listeners into a vacuum. Miraculous music, in  a performance worthy of its  secrets, its mysteries.
The overriding mystery is Schubert himself, in his last year, his body – but not his Muse – in the weakening clutch of the disease, most likely syphilis, that would terminate his lifespan at a tragic 31. And the music of that last year — the heartbreak in just the opening phrase of the Fantasy for piano duet, the Quintet for strings that gives me shivers just for thinking of it, and this Sonata, whose slow movement stops our breath with its miraculous key-changes like sword-thrusts into darkness:  can we ever fully understand this burst of creative adventure that moved the soul, and the pen, of this tormented, vision-racked genius, so close to the dying of his light. That slow movement may, indeed, hover at the edge of darkness; later in the same Sonata, a final movement comes loaded with marvelous, muscular trickery to send us joyously homeward.
There was more. Virtually on his deathbed, Schubert created the outline of a Symphony in D major, and filled in a fair amount: a bright and joyous first movement, an extraordinary slow movement that seems to look ahead to Mahler, a finale full of contrapuntal trickery. Other hands have brought these sketches to performable estate as a putative “Tenth Symphony,” but even more fascinating is the work of the late great Luciano Berio, who took these sketches under his care and produced an orchestral work of his own, Rendering, which is at once an adoration and a restoration. Schubert’s own music emerges: a beautiful, flowing first-movement melody worthy to companion the analogous moment in the familiar “Unfinished”; the spare, mysterious, cold beauty of the Mahleresque Andante with its warmer  episodes of sheer loveliness; the bright and dazzling joyousness – yes, joyousness – of the finale.
Two CDs on the Tudor label, distributed by Naxos, are called Schubert-Dialog and 

Schubert-Epilog;  on both discs Jonathan Nott, the talented young Brit, conducts the Bamberg Symphony. Both discs contain the work of contemporary composers in deriving new scores from manipulating preexisting Schubert material – highly respectful messing-around, in other words.. On “Dialog” we find Wolfgang Rihm’s Sketches On Schubert,  built out of the piano accompaniments of several Schubert songs, Dieter Schnebel’s orchestration and expansion of the G-major Piano Sonata and Bruno Mantovani’s jazzy treatment of the galloping piano part from “Der Erlkönig”. The Berio Rendering shows up on Epilog, along with Hans Werner Henze’s “Erlkönig” joy-ride and Hans Zender’s orchestration of several of Schubert’s short choruses.
And then there’s the matter of opera. Common wisdom carries an inventory of Schubert’s failure in this area: stiff, artificial, slow-moving. Now there’s refutation, again via Naxos, a DVD of Alfonso und Estrella in a splendid performance, led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with a cast that includes familiar names such as Thomas Hampson and Olaf Bar and an unfamiliar name – Luba Orgonasova – as the lovely Estrella, heroine in eighth-century Spain, caught up in a tale of stolen king’s crown, long-lost daughters and traitors forgiven. (Your basic nonsensical Romantic plot in other words). There is gorgeous music here, if not exactly a plea for restoring the opera to the active repertory.

Ever on Sunday

WELCOME: John Adams has been in town these past weeks, as good company as company can get. He came with some of his own music, which was wonderful enough. What’s more, at a Green Umbrella concert, the last of the season, he introduced two new, promising young composers, and surrounded their arrival with an excellent program-book essay on his hopes for music’s future. Next season he will be often at hand, enthroned in the Philharmonic’s newly endowed Creative Chair. His words and his deeds constitute an affirmation that the Philharmonic’s role in the advancement and enrichment of serious music will remain in strong hands.
At the Green Umbrella there was something new by Adams to treasure, namely Son of Chamber Symphony which is, as the name whimsically suggests, a sequel of sorts, composed for the chamber group Alarm Will Sound. The whimsy lies in more than merely the title; this is a work of serious fun; the Mark Morris  choreographed version is aptly titled Joyride. Bits and pieces from previous well-liked Adams works filter through the light-hearted texture. Michele Zukovsky’s solo clarinet gets a particular workout. I loved every note.
Two composers made themselves known and admired under the Umbrella, their combined ages short of Adams’s but scarcely wet behind the ears.  Two pieces by Tiimothy Andres, 24, shared a format: an ongoing musical narrative broken into by planned intrusions. The first, titled How Can I Live in Your World of Ideas? answered that question quite handily with an attractive pitched battle between a solo piano and an intruding percussion group. The second, Nightjar, also honors its namesake, a nocturnal insect given to chirps and pulsations. In between came Cowboy Tabla/Cowboy Raga by Payton MacDonald, 35, music also composed for Alarm Will Sound, created through manipulations on an acoustic marimba and also, says the composer, the result of an Idaho-born composer traveling halfway around the world.
I had fallen for  Adams’s The Flowering Tree in San Francisco, in 2007, and did so again  at the Philharmonic concert a couple of days later.. Peter Sellars’ words — a haunting, evocative re-working of a heart-rending and -warming  Indonesian legend, of lovers separated and rejoined,  in a fairytale setting exotic and magical — have drawn from Adams some of his most powerful musical drama, exquisite, stirring, deeply throbbing. There was magic, too, in the Sellars production, capturing even on the defeating, blank surfaces of the Disney stage  something close to the powerful drama of the story itself. Above the stage sat Grant Gershon’s Master Chorale, costumed as a living rainbow, hurling forth their commentary and participation in the drama. The three Indonesian scene-stealers were back with their phenomenal solo danceries; the trio of solo singers: Jessica Rivera, Russell Thomas and Eric Owens, were as splendid as before. Listen for yourself on the indispensable Nonesuch CD.

SUNDAY BEST: Juan Bautista Sancho’s dates are roughly the same as Haydn’s. Born on Mallorca, he later set sail for Mexico. After a time of study, he moved northward, landing at Monterey in 1804. There he founded a choir and set about creating a repertory, some of which made for a delightful sampling by the adventurous forces of Martin Haselböck’s Musica Angelica at Santa Monica’s First United Methodist, to start an uncommonly busy Sunday. The music – a motet and two movements of a Mass – was sweet, tuneful, and very much worth exploring. I hope there’s more. The program also included some genuine Haydn, a ravishing concerto for violin, organ and strings and a setting  of Salve, Regina, stern and dramatic. I hope there’s more of that, too.
Eastward, thence, to UCLA’s Royce Hall and the season’s final concert by the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, this one less worth writing home about than most in the series. Somehow, LACO’s record at new-music unearthing or commissioning has never been one of its strong points. This latest venture, a half-hour of drab modernist cliché titled Radiant Mind, supposedly Buddhist-inspired, commissioned by Sound Investment from the prolific American composer Christopher Theofandis is, I regret to report, the latest in a poignant succession of truly uninteresting LACO commissions extending many years back in our time together. Schumann’s Piano Concerto ensued, music I have no difficulty identifying as perfect, even – as in this instance – with those priceless notes sort of hammered into place with the mechanistic acumen of a Jonathan Biss and not much more.
Then Westward once again, to the precincts of the excellent Broad Stage on the Santa Monica College campus. There the visiting maestro Kent Nagano had assembled a truly weird program including something-or-other by Stockhausen for solo bassoon performed by a musician in a trained-bear suit, other music no less fascinating and involving in performance a pair of Inuit throat-singers and, to cap a most diverting day of musical serendipity, a perfectly fine production of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, Nagano conducting,  in a staging by Hollywood’s own William Friedkin. That’s the way it should be.

As Good as It Gets

Any notion of the season winding down –with Esa-Pekka departed and nothing to sing about except another creaky old Traviata across the street – needs a couple of weeks’ postponement, as it happens. Two of our best homegrown series ended their seasons last week in respective blazes of glory, and meanwhile, over at Disney, there was someone new on the podium, both adorable and terrific, if you can wrap your imaginations around  that combo.
Mark Robson’s program, to end the high-adventure  Piano Spheres series at Zipper Hall, was the customary Robson caprice: some of this, some of that, and a demand on your own fantasy to figure out how the whole program might come together. I like that about Robson: that he can find his own way to link the earnestness of early-atonal Schoenberg (the Opus 23 Piano Pieces) with the flip arrogance of the purposive emptiness of a Mauricio Kagel show-off number, or yet the emptyheaded note-spinning of yet another Patricio da Silva escapade, no better than his last time in the series. Yet Robson, with his fine sense of  program balance, brought the evening to its senses with a clutch of György Ligeti Etudes, that cherishable series of pianistic outlooks that anchor that great composer’s artistic heritage. Small, sweet and charmingly unimportant bits by Morton Feldman and Charles Ives, and the second chance in a week (after last week’s Calder Quartet concert) to sample the work of the sound-and-silence experimentalist Beat Furrer, rounded out a program that must have been an enjoyable pastime for Robson to put together, and turned out that way for me as well.

MOM’S THE WORD: Xian  Zhang, that small fireball of a very big conducting talent, delighted us all at the Bowl back in September, 2006, and returned to the Philharmonic on Mothers’ Day  to reaffirm that delight, indoors at Disney.  Her program was all about bravado: the ingratiating swirl of  Chen Yi’s Momentum, the splendid nose-thumbing all the way through Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, John Adams’s Chairman dancing his galloping gazoo and the amazing, hard-edged, slashing violence of Bartók’s early Miraculous Mandarin. Yefim Bronfman had come along to devour the Prokofiev whole, which he accomplished most heartily, and then dedicated his encore – Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude in a fearsome reading – to “all mothers.” A message? Let’s not go there quite yet.

THE SPIRIT TRIUMPHANT: Someday when the ink supply starts running low, and there’s still enough left for one last tabulation, last Saturday’s Jacaranda concert will rank among the best musical events I will ever want to remember. Ever. It’s not just because of the music; there was no Mozart, after all, and  no Schubert. There were a few truly great performers, but the majority were recruits from local schools – well-trained, to be sure, and basically held to their task by the sense of dedication that enveloped the whole undertaking. The concert drew its excellence from a deeper well, from the depth of musical enthusiasm, tempered with imagination and pure love, that have driven Jacaranda’s guiding spirits – the musician Mark Alan Hilt and the man-of-all-the-arts, spirited amateur (in the best sense of that word), Patrick Scott, since the series was dreamed up and brought to a state of improbable   but tangible deliciousness over the past decade or so.
Their work has inspired their community as their community has inspired their work. That was easy  to sense last weekend, in the size of the crowd that  came so close as never mind to filling, not the concerts’ usual small (and lovely) First Presbyterian Church but the far more spacious Barnum Hall, the adequately monstrous assembly hall of Santa Monica High School. Many of Jacaranda’s professional regulars participated: the marvelous pianist Gloria Cheng, the Denali String Quartet, the several ad hoc gatherings who regularly play and/or sing under the Jacaranda aegis, and a roof-raising gathering, grateful to eye and ear, it proved to be.  From the racketing pounding upon Heaven’s gates by the winds, brass and percussion of the so-named “Jacaranda Festival Orchestra” let loose on Messiaen’s Expectations of the Resurrection, to the exquisite curlings of silvery choral tone around Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, to Glorious Gloria’s ascent, girdled by flocks of pianistic birds massed to serenade her at The City on High,  to the much touted finale, the charming, sturdy and expendable piece of national-anthem note-spinning, the long-lost Chant des Déportés that finally brought to earth the two years of “OM Century” with, I must  admit, something of a thud.  Yes, this much awaited pearl of great price, the capstone to the fabulously inventive centenary birthday-party concocted by Jacaranda’s founders, uncorked by a stageful of ardent interpreters numbering  no fewer than185, encored by the acclaim of the stunned multitude, may now be shoved back – one must truly hope —  into history’s sheltering shrouds for at least another century. Yes, it bore the name of a composer worthy of respect; yes it carried the cachet of a historical event of sorts; yes it enabled its presenters to go romping around proclaiming “premiere” and “first time”; yes it enabled those 185 prideful people – most of them young, all of them beautiful —  to assemble on that stage and yell and hack their way through its four meager minutes of musical substance. Now we move on.

Kid Stuff

THEY’RE STILL OUT THERE
The following, which the good people at Jacaranda received recently and have allowed me to send along, might be worthy of comment. At least I hope so.

Subject: Pretentious Bullshit
I just received your advertising card for The OM Century Final Concert.
Lots of “premiere” performances.  There’s a reason they are premiere
performances.  No one else was interested.
It’s simply not true that every generation has its great composers and
artists.  It’s far more complicated than that.  When was the last great
Greek play written?
Just because someone studied music, understands it, and writes in a form
that seems serious does not mean that their music is worth listening to.
You’re presenting what is largely crap that will be forgotten real fast
except by those who need some kind of identity which is intertwined with
pretentious bullshit.
And don’t think that the words “accessible” and “not as accessible” will
mask what’s going on.  The music you’re presenting is as accessible as a
Straus waltz, it’s just that it’s not worth listening to.
I’m sure Swed loves the stuff.  But then for him, anything new equals
good.

Comments, please.

KID STUFF: Jacaranda’s very large season’s finale takes place on Saturday, May 9, at Barnum Hall, which is the large auditorium of Santa Monica High School, on 4th Street just south of Pico. Something very big by Messiaen will conclude the two-year celebration of that composer’s centennial.
Something even bigger has occupied several hours of my last couple of days, the DVD on Opus Arte (distributed by Naxos) of Messiaen’s huge opera Saint-François d’Assise. Saint Francois d’Assise [DVD Video]The production is from the Netherlands Opera, directed by Pierre Audi, — whom we know from two sublime Monteverdi productions brought here — conducted by Ingo Metzmacher: an extraordinary visual experience, a setting for this humanistic document exactly right for its character and for the message it strives to deliver.
There is no stage, in any theatrical sense. We are spectators at the periphery of a huge room, whose floorboards show their roughness. At one side is a lumber pile of discarded crosses in various disrepair; behind, ringed by scaffolding and partly visible, is Metzmacher and the orchestra. The action moves in and around these gatherings, with François, a stern, suffering figure in his rough robe of animal skins. The ecstasy of Messaien’s orchestra – the clatter of percussion and the howl of the Ondes Martenot, seems to pour down upon us. Saint François is Covina’s own Rod Gilfry, Seville’s Barber and A Streetcar’s Stanley, now a solemn and moving singing actor of rich lyricism and dignified bearing.
He cuts a distinguished figure, tall and stern, in a rough robe that sweeps the floor. (All his saintly brothers are similarly robed, but in different strong colors.)   For three hours the stage colors are mostly drab, contrasted only against the lurid yellow as the Leper makes his tortured appearance, to be cured by François’ kiss. An Angel (Camilla Tilling) comes snooping around the precincts, asking rude questions of the Brethren and drawing unsatisfactory answers. The Angel reappears in resplendent get-up, plays a viol solo and causes François to faint.
Still here?
Then comes the miracle. The stage explodes — and the music too!! – into vivid color. François addresses his worldwide convocation of birds, an enchanted gathering of children, colorfully robed, bare of foot, angelic of mien. They are Birds; armed with colored chalk they scrawl their ornithological names on the broken Crosses. They dance; they leap into François’ arms; the glorious clatter of their music is irresistible. The episode that has been an endless bore in every staged Saint-François I have seen up to now (and even drew boos at the Paris première; don’t tell me, I was there) is now transformed by stage magician  Audi into sheer enchantment.

The juvenile gathering on the cover of the Medici Arts DVD release (also from Naxos) of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen is hardly less enchanting These are the kids who play the Vixen’s and the Fox’s scampering offspring at the moment of the opera’s tragic end; some also are used in other animal roles earlier on. We are well supplied with versions of this powerful, moving, irreplaceable opera: a  previous version in Czech with Thomas Allen as the Forester,  a charming animated English version by Geoff Dunbar, conducted by Kent Nagano but somewhat cut, and the creation by East Germany’s Walter Felsenstein, on which our awareness of the opera is mainly based, and which Naxos rescued and issued in an essential seven-disc collection of that legendary director’s work last year.
In this new, exellent version the action occurs, not in the forest of  Janácek’s “merry thing” but in a vast field of sunflowers: almost as good. A railroad track pierces it from right to left: humanity inflicting its misery.  Elena Tsallagova is the chestnut-crowned Vixen, wondrously svelte as she steals the heart of foxy Hannah Esther Minutillo (and us all). Michèle Lagrange is the Forester, somewhat ill-tempered for this wise and all-knowing role. (There was no-one like Rudolf Asmus, who sang it for Felsenstein.) The performance is from the Opéra de Paris; Dennis Russell Davies is the eloquent conductor. A 25-minute video  “bonus” begins with jabberwocky from the ubiquitous Gérard Mortier, but settles down to quite a nice interplay with stage director André Engel and those kids.

THE TIN CUP
This morning I sat in my doctor’s waiting room, a prisoner to Station KUSC during one of the days of its recurrent appeal for funds. The announcer, my good friend Alan Chapman, was talking about “beautiful music” and extolling the role of the station in making that substance generously available. To illustrate his talk he was playing very beautiful pieces:  Liszt’s “Liebestraum,” the “Nimrod” Variation from Elgar’s Enigma, the 18th Variation from Rachmaninoff’s “Paganini” Rhapsody, a mournful moment from Elgar’s Cello Concerto, on and on. He was running these pieces in quick order, seguing from one to the next, never allowing any one to end. All in the name of demonstrating beautiful music or…to my taste, the power of overdoses of beautiful music to drive a listener up the wall.
Some of you have asked about that word “DONATION” to the right of this blog. As with KUSC and KPCC and KCRW, I am attempting to support my work on contributions. Unlike those organizations, at the moment I have no other source of support; as  I noted in a recent report, publications running cultural criticism have been firing their writers right and left these days.
One difference: I can conduct my fund drives without changing the tone of this blog itself. I don’t have to hold readers hostage, as KUSC was doing this morning, or as KPCC was doing for two agonizing weeks last month while the country begged on its knees for news and more news. (Wellll, maybe not the country, but I did.)
David-my-Blogmaster is setting up a Paypal system the workings of which I know now not. Any day, we’ll have that tin cup out on the sidewalk.

Music for Twelve

MUSIC FOR TWELVE: Steve Reich’s Double Sextet began the week by copping the 2009 Music Pulitzer, and began this  next week by proving to a local audience – in a Colburn School Chamber Music Society program at the Zipper Auditorium — that it deserved the award, every teeming, pulsating note. This is music that sweeps you up; its sound spectrum is grand and irresistible. You hear it the way you hear the “Eroica,” as unfolding melodic material pushing forward from idea to idea. It is a different kind of surging music from Steve’s “You Are” Variations (which is also wonderful) and it holds you in a different way from the hypnosis exerted by Music for Eighteen. I love all this music, and I could not choose among a single one of them. I left Zipper Sunday afternoon totally exhilarated. I didn’t want to wait around for the q&a (Steve wasn’t there); I think I would have been jealous to share this truly profound experience.
Sunday’s performance was by eighth blackbird, the performance co-op that has pretty much taken over this year’s Ojai Festval (June 11-14); students from Colburn filled in the other parts – a handsome group, if I may say so. (As with others of Reich’s “double” works, the Sextet can be performed entirely live or half-and-half with a  recording; kindly accept my vote herewith for a live version at Ojai.)
This was the last of an excellent series of Sunday afternoon chamber concerts at Zipper, nicely organized by Colburn, free to the public and mostly jam-packed. In previous weeks we’ve had visits from the fine old Israeli pianist Menahem Pressler, performing Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (heaven!) with Colburn faculty, and the Calder Quartet in a sublime program of Mozart K 516 and the First “Rasumovsky.” (Life can’t get much better than that!) Today’s program was an Ojai “sneak preview,” with Lucy Shelton and the blackbird in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and a kicky new piece by Stephen Hartke that you’ll have to come to Ojai to hear. The Steve Reich Double Sextet plays at Ojai on June 14, leading off a “marathon” concert that brings the Festival to a close.

It has been three years since the misguided management at LACMA dropped any serious involvement with serious music, and it felt strange being back in the Bing Theater last Monday night. Nobody at LACMA seems to promote their few concerts, but the Calder Quartet’s New York management reached out from afar to lure me to an interesting new-music program. The crowd was sparse; you could have played basketball in the empty seats, and a certain Mitch Glickman, listed as “Director of Music Programs,” showed no idea in his intro as to who the Calders were or what the program. Some connection to an Austrian Constructivist exhibition at the museum could be traced in a quartet by the expressionist Beat Furrer, and no excuse need ever be advanced for the Five Movements by Anton Webern (which the Calders performed exquisitely). Music by Ryan Carter and good-ol’-boy Christopher Rouse, filled out the evening, safely and uneventfully.

November 26, 1933: at a concert of the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, Maurice Abravanel leads a suite of Kurt Weill songs, sung by Madeleine Grey. Suddenly there is a demonstration: “Vive Hitler!!” screams a gathering, led by the composer Florent Schmitt. “Why bring in inferior Jewish composers from Germany, when we have enough of our own?” In fairness to the composer of La tragédie de Salomé, the work of Florent Schmitt that the excellent Lionel Bringuier led with the Philharmonic last weekend, his political idol was still painting houses when that tone poem saw the light of day. Just thought you might like to know.
The tragedy of this particular Salome, following a poem by Robert d’Humières, befalls only John the Baptist, and not the slithery love-goddess. Herod has him decapitated, whereupon Salomé tosses the head into the sea, whereupon it resurfaces and engages in a “Dance of Fear.” The Schmitt ballet score teems with high-class hootchy-kootch, which apparently caught the ear of Igor Stravinsky for a while. Following the lurid travelogues of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole – and the comparable hootchy-kootch of the violin soloist engaged to further the evening’s entertainment – I found Monsieur Schmitt’s music decidedly tame.
The excellent young (23) Bringuier now has the run of the house. His two years as Assistant Conductor (leading to a third as Associate) have been a splendid success, and invitations to further his career have poured in nicely. Credit here befalls Ernest Fleischmann, now incapacitated in a wheelchair but still the vital mind behind the great Los Angeles tradition of discovery and support of conducting talent. In our last conversations, Esa-Pekka took every care to emphasize this important phase in our musical history. So must we all.

…and Farewell

…AND FAREWELL
A melancholy event it surely was, and yet a transforming event, an exhilarating event. At the start there may have been reasons to raise an eyebrow at the choice: our spellbinding, so-easy-to-love Music Director taking his leave with a program of Stravinsky at his most solemn – austere, even – in  a collaboration with aging Wunderkind Peter Sellars that surely promised tampering, perhaps even a wholesale rewrite. At the end there was cause to marvel; this was one of the great events in Philharmonic annals, an event to think back on, to marvel at, to meditate on matters of new doors opened, to resolve that never in the future must one so blithely prejudge.
Yes, there were some fascinating acts of tampering, mostly on the part of Sellars having come up with some brilliant ways of using the space of Disney Hall. At the start of Oedipus Rex, the first of the two works of Igor Stravinsky that made up the program, the oppressed populace of Thebes rushed across the stage, done up in working-class clothes – not motionless in choral-concert costume and formation —  and hollered their malcontentment at their King Oedipus, cowering behind them on a throne worthy of Ming the Merciless. Throughout the hour-long piece, meant by Stravinsky as a static oratorio, the action circled the space of the great Hall, continually endowing with the spark of life a piece that ordinarily simply stands still – this made possible by the hall’s vivid sightlines as well as by its acoustic clarity. Instead of the usual stand-apart narrator, Sellars had reassigned the spoken text to Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, speaking in English against the Latin of soloists and chorus and moving her down into the action. Her text, too, had undergone some Sellars treatment: not entirely  the sardonic outlook of Stravinsky’s pal Jean Cocteau but a return to some of the darker Sophocles original. Rodrick Dixon was the passionate, moving Oedipus; Viola Davis, the Antigone. Jocasta’s one great tragic aria, the fulcrum of the drama, got the full treatment – and then some – by Anne Sofie von Otter.
The Symphony of Psalms ensued, with the forces of Grant Gershon’s Master Chorale, still in street clothes, ringing the entire inner circumference of Disney Hall. (Nota bene: they were obliged to memorize the entire program.) The works are, of course, separated by two years in Stravinsky’s oeuvre, but not in Sellars’s invention, which has the disgraced and blinded Oedipus of the first drama now seeking solace and restful death at Colonus to the broad strains of Stravinsky’s “Laudate Dominum.”

And so an era ended, with a concert distinguished, marvelously performed, attended by s serious-minded audience that included a contingent of professional observers from beyond the mountains who now know the quality of this place and express it generously. A couple of nights ago I sat though the two hours of KUSC’s documentary on Salonen’s career here; the people at the station asked the right questions and played the right recordings, but most impressive was the talking by Salonen himself, the extraordinary intelligence in his own recognition of where he has come in his years here, and how he got there.  I thought of that special intelligence last night, for example, in the way he declined any ovation after the Oedipus. He and Sellars had evolved a vision that embraced that entire program, and now he was only half-way.

That’s the way I saw it, anyway. There’s more to be said.

NOT WITH A WHIMPER: The Monday Evening Concerts ended what I take to have been a successful season — their 70th, figuring their start on Peter Yates’ rooftop in 1939. Zipper Hall was, once again, jam-packed with a young and happy crowd, much of it from the Colburn School dorms across the way, and that is a very good thing indeed. Two of this season’s five concerts were similar in format to the fine old Monday Evening programs: a variorum of brave spirits. Three were given over to single composers, two of whom I could easily live without. (One of them, in fact, I DID live without, having decided some years ago that Charlemagne Palestine and I resided on different planets.) About Galina Ustvolskaya, whose music, shall we call it, took up most of last Monday’s concert, I can report that the fun factor was high, the music factor less so, and it was great to have Marino Formenti — a Monday Evening Concerts discovery, after all, in the glory days of Dorrance Stalvey — back in our midst. Something by Comrade Galina Ustvolskaya involving eight double basses, Marino conducting from the piano, a percussionist hammering on a coffin-sized wooden box and, of course, bearing the title “Dies Irae” ended the concert and sent us reeling into the California night; much of the preceding program had been of similar substance, if that’s the word. I would sincerely hope than Marino Formenti can be lured back to the next round of Monday Evening Concerts, with something more in the way of music in his luggage.

Hail and…

There had been a rumor – or perhaps I had mis-heard – that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, the parting work of his Los Angeles adventure, might also include a part for a dancer or several. That didn’t happen, or perhaps it did happen well beyond our mundane field of vision. What happened instead was almost the same: music for instruments alone, but in human form;  its composer says as much. His program note, accompanying this weekend’s premiere, wanders proudly beyond the usual “first theme in the tonic modulating to the dominant” analytical stuff. It forms an eloquent, loving link between his music and the phenomenal soloist, Leila Josefowicz, whose life blood it shares. There is a  kind of  remarkable humanness, in fact, that  surfaces in the two great concertos of Salonen, beyond any matter of dry-bones musical design: a sense of participation, a relationship of composer and soloist born not only out of admiration for finger dexterity but for their musical souls as well. “She knows no limits,” Salonen writes about Leila  Josefowicz, “she knows no fear, and she was constantly encouraging me to go to places I was not sure I would dare to go.” (My album notes for the recording of the Piano Concerto were partly based on Esa-Pekka’s similar personal sketches.)
And so, as the great Yefim Bronfman lumbers toward us out of the dark reaches of his Piano Concerto, the elfin Josefowicz forms her enchantment around our awestruck ears to set this new work a-spin. Awestruck, we note: even with its ink barely dry, she had already absorbed the music by memory, and by heart. This is a big, profound work; there hasn’t been anything quite like it in a while; not a handy show-off piece as, say, Penderecki for Isaac Stern, but genuine music involving soloist and orchestra in serious discussion. The writing for violin sweeps across contemporary possibilities, from the opening rumination that seems to search out the stage from a distance, to the last notes that vanish once again into a remote world. On first hearing I am the most  moved by the slow movements: the first (of two), a restless, nocturnal, troubled dream, and the final music, which draws down to a strange, unsettled, final gleam. Salonen’s LA Variations, his coming-of-age proclamation now twelve years old, ended this way: a reaching-out into mysterious endlessness which satisfies yet disturbs. Of the Concerto’s final chord Salonen himself wrote “(It) is a beginning of something new”; as to what that might be, your guess is as good as mine
Clocks and Clouds began the program, György Ligeti’s magical, indeterminate nocturne that Salonen had only conducted here once before (plus once at the Bowl, when it got booed). This is music I adore, with marvelously, precisely trained women’s voices moving microtonally in dream-like, never-never  metaphors through clouds over an ever-ever clock-like backing of winds and percussion. There’s nothing else like it in any music I know. Beethoven’s Fifth ended the program in a grand proclamation. But this is actually music I never felt that Salonen  really got close to. (Is the Giulini/Philharmonic disc still around?)

Earlier in the week there was music by four brand-new composers, chosen by Salonen for Philharmonic commissions for his last Green Umbrella concert – curated by Steven Stucky as his final service as new-music advisor in a term also incomparably valuable. From the – admittedly incomplete – evidence, today’s young (30-ish) composers are expert at drawing unusual sounds from various assemblages of instruments, with such teeth-rattling techniques as drawing a violin bow across the edge of a vibraphone They are less good at judging the substance of a composition against the proper time to call a halt. They do not seem to have located the fun factor in contemporary composition. They might all have profited by attending to the final work on the program, the delightful show-off piece called Floof, by Esa-Pekka himself, music that had showed up at Salonen’s first Green Umbrella concert (4/15/91) and has withstood the passing of the years. Hila Plitmann, that delirious bundle of soprano who also traces the lines so wondrously in Salonen’s Wing on Wing, was on hand this time, too. Yum!

LULLABY OF BIRDLAND:  Yum, too – if an overdose of marzipan happens to be your craving – for the L.A. Opera’s latest “Recovered Voices” revival, proving merely that in the case of Walter Braunfels’ Die Vögel recoveries are sometimes best left unrecovered. Braunfels (1882-1954) had a distinguished career in Germany, as composer, pianist and educator, until Hitler, and was restored to favor in 1945. His The Birds dates from 1920; based on the Aristophanes satire. Braunfels later chose to introduce undertones of warning against the rising Nazi menace; the result is a weird conflation of plot elements which the score – a gooey mess of salon sentimentality possibly fished out of Massenet’s wastebasket – does nothing to untangle. There are attractive voices – notably Désirée Rancatore, a sensational coloratura soprano, lost in a dismally soporific Nightingale aria – and James Conlon’s orchestra chugs along expressively. There’s also a very fancy set: clouds and moonscapes and shining stars, the Las Vegas ballroom of your dreams which, come to think of it, a lot of the music goes with very well.

Opera in all Sizes

The winter storms abate; Wagner’s grandiose music sweeps the stage clean, and our souls as well. The transformation from last month’s deliriously cluttered Rheingold to the spacious, think-for-yourself Die Walküre is as the composer and his music ordained, and the earthlings at the Chandler Pavilion have fulfilled his bidding. There is much in our local Ring that you have to take home and sort out for yourselves, but I found that task stimulating. Several days later, even with the digression of a Rigoletto to help wash things down, I find myself still thrall to this profound and profoundly moving experience.
You start, of course, with the sibling-lovers, their stage costumes half-designed so that they come together, with some help from the lighting guys, as a whole. That our 68-year-old youthful Siegmund is so capable is enough of a miracle, but there is more: Plácido Domingo’s Siegmund is actually, genuinely good. At the dress-rehearsal three days before, when he could have sung at half-voice just to mark the part, he did no such thing, and it was thrilling both times – even thrilling to watch. Anja Kampe, the Sieglinde, was with him all the way. What I heard at the Saturday opening-night performance was, in fact, a vocal event of genuine high standards: Linda Watson, a truly moving Brünnhilde most of all in her final appeals to the punishment-intent Wotan, Vitalij Kowaljow a Wotan more tender-voiced than thundering perhaps, and eminently believable, Michelle DeYoung a rock-solid bitch of a Fricka. (Let it be noted that Fricka’s Act Two argument, upholding the tenets of marriage along traditional boundaries, earned the audience snickers it deserved.)
Achim Freyer’s stage-painting — which is what it really is – depicts a rising, hurtling, cresting, falling wave, moving continuously, unstoppable. Nothing interrupts the continuous surge. The silences – Siegmund, breathless, awaits his destiny while Hunding’s drumbeats sound in his body; nature stands suspended as the James Conlon’s fine orchestra maintains its breath and Springtide fills the room —  pound in our conscience. More than the cluttered Rheingold, this Walkuere builds its superlative suspense out of emptiness.
The signature action, the all-too-famous Ride,  bursts upon us in its renowned absurdity. As if only underline awareness of the music’s silliness, Freyer decks his warrior maidens in ravens’ wings and endows them with gadgetry from trashed bicycle gear and umbrellas (or so it looked; I’ll go back again). It all sounded marvelous. Mythology aside Die Walküre is one of the greatest of Romantic operas, at this moment, at least, it strikes these enchanted ears as Wagner’s best. I’m glad I went.

Oh yes, Rigoletto. That came about because my friends Dick and Harriet drive down regularly to the San Diego Opera’s Sunday matinees, and usually return full of praise, and it occurred that I hadn’t been to an opera there (I think it was Renée Fleming in Russalka)  in far too long. San Diego’s company does a five-opera season; Britten’s Peter Grimes is next, opening on April 18 for five performances.  Anthony Dean Griffey, the excellent Grimes of the recent Met performance and DVD, singe the role again.
There’s one more Rigoletto, this Wednesday April 8. It’s a first-rate performance, sparked by Lado Ataneli in the name role and L’Ubica Vargiconá, the Gilda, both of whom let loose in the “Si, vendetta” duet like nobody’s business. Giuseppe Gipali, the Duke, has a voice with the sweetness of the young Pavarotti, but not quite the strength to hold it on course. The sets, from the New York City Opera, are still bright and meaningful and the sound-effect guys really go at it in the third-act thunderstorm. I’m glad I went.

Those ARE The Days, My Friends

MUZAK, ANYONE? The latest from embattled Cleveland – where Rodzinski, Szell and Dohnanyi once guided an orchestra to high distinction – is encapsulated in a report from a Plain Dealer article on that orchestra’s current plight and current emergency plans, to wit (italics mine): Concerts projected as “unprofitable” will be dropped from the schedule, as will most touring. (The Miami residency, said to be successful, remains unaffected.) Programming will be largely limited to works requiring no extra rehearsal or additional musicians.

REDUNDANCY: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) is a small, quiet masterpiece, a Noël Coward play involving honorable middle-class people pulled back from the brink of consummation by circumstances both wise and frustrating. In the background, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto mirrors their story with harrowing accuracy; not a note is wasted. How, you’d rightly wonder, could so perfect a small drama, with its perfect performances by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, be further enhanced? Or why?

Enter André Previn, his fingers still bloodied with the shards of his Streetcar Named Desire; his new opera, to a text by John Caird, debuts at the Houston Grand Opera in May. Great wisps of trouble arise from the interview in the new Opera News; Previn and his librettist wonder whether Laura and Alec shouldn’t actually consummate. How can they – Previn and Caird, I mean — so blatantly miss the essence of Coward’s play, its essential tender frustrations so poignantly underscored by every element in this sublimely intimate, perfect film? (Don’t bother with the Richard Burton/Sophia Loren remake.)

What’ll you bet for Previn’s next opera? How about an all-singing Citizen Kane? He could call it A Sled Named Rosebud.

VIRTUOSITY: David Daniels really sounded wonderful at Disney last Tuesday: his voice clear, resonant and flexible. At his Handel’s Julius Caesar a few years ago I had reason for concern; now he is the best of our countertenors. From the melting beauties of the Matthew Passion’s “Erbarme dich” to the weird rhythmic manipulations in the Mad Scene from Handel’s Orlando he dominated the stage with performances elegant, powerful and brainy. He sang with Harry Bicket’s London Concert, and that, too, was as fine as it could be. Small Baroque “authentic”ensembles have metamorphosed over the years from the soft, swoony  Italian bands of the Vivaldi craze to the clattery Brits of the ‘60s with the harpsichord drowning out everything – the early days of the London Concert, under Trevor Pinnock, were thus afflicted – to the present, nicely balanced sound of Bicket’s group. He has been here often, and has been a welcome visitor every time.
Next night there was András Schiff, continuing his cycle of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas to his usual sold-out house – including one sub-moron out front with a flash camera, a potent argument for arming the house staff with shotguns. I am not a Schiff admirer out of hand; in fact his performance of the murderously difficult fugue that ends the “Hammerklavier,” which Schiff took at a pace so deliriously fast that it no longer mattered whether he was landing on the right notes or on any notes, merely angered me and made it impossible to regard his performance as a musical experience. Before that I had heard quite an exhilarating performance of Opus 101, and a beautiful, relaxed saunter through the lovely slow movement of Opus 90. To my taste I found the whole of the monumental “Hammerklavier” poorly comprehended in Schiff’s uneven performance. Could it have been the rogue photographer and his flash? Schiff has reacted poorly to audience misbehavior in the past.

HO-YO-TO-HO!! I am old enough (alas) to remember when recorded Wagner meant mind-boggling and arm-breaking scattershot albums of bits and pieces. the closest to-complete
Die Walküre (Victor M-26 &27 for you number freaks) consisted of fourteen 78-rpm discs: two Brünnhildes, two Sieglindes, two Wotans, three conductors, several huge cuts. (Fourteen 78-rpm discs can total, at most, 140 minutes; the Met’s performance under James Levine runs 244.) The first consistent Wagnerian recording, also Walküre, was the whole of Act One (M-298), recorded in Vienna just before Hitler. It was glorious then; now, on a single CD,  it still is. Lotte Lehmann was the Sieglinde, Lauritz Melchior, the Siegmund; Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. There hasn’t been a soprano since then who could shade the word “tränen” to draw tears as Lehmann did, as Sieglinde tells of Wotan’s visit to her wedding feast.

The original plan in 1938 was to record a complete Walküre in Vienna, under Walter with the cream of Wagnerian singers of the time. The Hitler Anschluss put a crimp in that plan, with Act One and a few scenes from Act Two in the can. The project was moved to Berlin, under the undistinguished baton of Bruno Seidler-Winkler, with a few splendid singers — Hans Hotter, Marta Fuchs, the young Margarete Klose as Fricka — but no Bruno Walter  to trace the lights and shadows of the “Annunciation of Death.” Out of the 20 sides of Act Two (Victor M-582) five were led by Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic; the other 15 by Seidler-Winkler, not with the Berlin Phil but with the State Opera house band. Both acts, on two CDs, make up the Naxos set; the EMI disc is of Act One only. Both, furthermore, may be hard to find, although Amazon has this efficient marketing plan though its outreach stores and has never let me down. Nobody bothered to record a complete Act Three until around 1950, when a so-so set with Helen Traubel and Herbert Janssen appeared — and soon disappeared, unable to hold its own against Wagnerian history, I’d guess.
Now we are awash in Wagner, with George Solti’s epochal audio (which has, above all, the gleam of Birgit Nilsson’s Brünnhilde flashing mightily even through the heartbreak of Hans Hotter’s farewell. Some of the DVDs are visually beautiful: the back-to-nature staging at James Levine’s  Metropolitan Opera, the weird but effective setting amidst plumbing and building construction at the Stuttgart Opera, Pierre Boulez hard at work at a Bayreuth hydroelectric plant but with some rather so-so singers, Daniel Barenboim, also at Bayreuth, compressed into Harry Kupfer’s austere setting.

We’re in an era of Wagner interestingly staged, nowhere more so than here in Los Angeles with the fascinating symbolism of Achim Freyer’s creations – next week, Walküre, and I hear that the Valkyries ride in on bicycles! Somewhere else in California, I hear that they’re staging the Ring as if in the American Wild West. Frankly, I’d swap just one of those fancy stagings for a night of Lehmann and Melchior as those sonorous siblings.

LET ME BACKTRACK, AT LEAST A FEW INCHES: Actually, the glorious Wagnerian past, whose passing I so ardently mourn, is not  so much dead as simply distant. In the early days of electrical recording the London-based Gramophone Company did busy itself with Wagnerian activity, mostly based at Bayreuth but also in London and Vienna; the Walküre albums I mentioned earlier were one product. There were similar bulky sets of Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, and Tannhauser; Wagner’s son Siegfried, and even Toscanini, were rumored to take part in preparing some performances. The competing Columbia Gramophone Company had a Tristan. Most of the performances were piecemeal; various conductors and singers contributed various parts of the music dramas and the sound was, of course, what you might expect from primitive technology in the years 1928 thru 1932-or-so.

What mattered, however, were the singers, who on the whole came through. Old and faint as these recordings may be, they capture a generation of Wagnerian performers, and Wagnerian performing styles, that form a document beyond price.  On a two-CD Naxos set, the sound restored by the legendary Ward Marston, there is a collection of moments from Siegfried — formerly Victor M-83, 161 & 167, 20 discs, 152 minutes — cf the Met’s “complete” 253.  The young Melchior trumpets forth his defiance as he forges the great sword Nothung and later achieves manhood alongside Florence Easton’s Brünnhilde; their final duet is delivered complete, and Easton’s “Heil dir, Sonne” sends shivers.  Friedrich Schorr is the Wanderer/Wotan; the deep, dark eloquence of his delivery is what people still evoke when this music comes to mind. (I heard him once, from standing room in Boston; some things you don’t forget.)  On Naxos there is also a Marston-restored Tannhäuser, also from those old Victor albums. I pray that the aforementioned Walküre albums will turn up on CD; their content is priceless,  with Schorr’s farewell to the Brünnhilde of Frieda Leider. Some of the sides — ten of the 28 —  have another legend, the great Albert Coates conducting. Those were the days, my friends.