DEVASTATION

The slow movement of Mozart’s G-minor Quintet is as heartbreaking as any music I know. I have written about this music before – a couple of pages in the foreword to my book of this same name repeat an article from New York Magazine in the 1970s, which in turn regurgitates wisdom verbatim from the classrooms of David Boyden and Joe Kerman at UC-Berkeley in the 1950s. Hearing it again last Friday, wonderfully played by the Calder Quartet plus Paul Coletti’s second viola at Zipper Hall, I found myself reacting more strongly than ever before to the G-minor outcry that begins the next movement, the ensuing Arioso – Mozart’s refusal to let go of the agonies he has shared with us over the eight minutes of the previous movement – and I ended the evening aware that my years of adoration of this one Mozart revelation so far have been in no way adequate.

That movement remains unique. Just the subtlety in the range of its tone color makes it so, in demanding that its five instruments perform muted until that overpowering release, the single high D that proclaims major triumphant over minor. In schoolboy enthusiasm I once proclaimed that D my favorite note in all music, and friends came over and asked me to play it for them – the one note! That’s nonsense, of course; a note is only a note in context. And when Ben Jacobson played it on Friday, because of the way he and his four partners had gotten themselves into the context of that amazing entire work, that stupendous panorama of suffering and irony and, in its final movement, an almost insolent masque of resolution, that high D had once again become, indeed, my favorite of all notes, ever.

The Calders are really good. They play the classical repertory with elegance and respect, patience and genuine wit. Beethoven’s first “Razumovsky” was their other big work on Friday, and this, too, was treated exactly right: a big, loving performance full of the great rhythmic quirks of middle-period Beethoven. Better still, they let the stars come out and shine all over the slow movement. That movement is just the reverse of Mozart’s. Midway, it simply soars, skyward, and the great performances do nothing to control the captivating ecstasy, as this didn’t.

The concert was free, and Zipper Hall filled up quickly with an audience young and attentive. Nobody applauded between movements. Ten-or-so years ago I wrote with concern about the dying out, or at least the aging out, of the chamber music audience. Now we have the Calder playing classic repertory at the Colburn School and the Denali playing contemporary repertory at Jacaranda, both to big, supportive audiences.

Both quartets, as it happens, played one of the new-music landmark works within the last few days and did so handsomely: Ben Johnston’s 1984 set of variations on “Amazing Grace” that wanders off into microtones and just intonation and other harmonic and contrapuntal shenanigans. The old boy was in town for a few days, and the Denali played his piece for him at an invitational party. Then, by the time the Calders played it to begin their concert, Ben Johnston himself had already flown off to Germany for some other celebration.

ECSTASY: I spoke of ecstasy back there. Then there is the slow movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto: a quietly unfolding lyric line for the piano alone, untroubled, utterly joyous. At a certain point, as if the most natural thing in the world, a flute joins in, then others. Nothing breaks the quiet, loving…yes, ecstasy. That’s the way Martha Argerich played it last week here. Sure, it was thrilling, the way those iron fingers of hers shot out and made ice sculptures out of Ravel’s rhythms in the outer movements , but it was that slow movement, where you began by listening and then, without noticing, you found yourself breathing in the rhythm of the music itself. Yannick Nezet-Séguin, Montreal-born, was the excellent conductor, and put over a mostly moving Shostakovich Fifth although I found his tempo changes in the last movement a little off-putting. I cherish a tape from Kurt Sanderling’s days here as guest conductor; he knew Shostakovich, and he knew what this music was supposed to signify, and his way makes better sense than anyone’s else I know.

This weekend’s Philharmonic conductor, replacing Yuri Temirkanoff, has been the 31-year-old, obscenely good-looking, circa nine-feet-tall, curly-topped Pablo Heras-Casado, whom I managed to miss at his Green Umbrella debut last December but won’t ever again; he’s terrific. His bio, which has him leading virtually every new-music, experimental-music and youth-oriented organization here and abroad, goes on for days; that document is breath-taking, and so is his work. He leads without baton, but also without the affectation that many hands-only conductors employ; he is eminently watchable. His Mendelssohn “Italian” was crisp, spirited, impulsive; his Mahler Fourth was beautifully balanced. The devastating orchestral climaxes in first and third movements, which can sit at the edge of trashiness in less careful performances, were nicely, intelligently arrived at. Kate Royal sang the childlike Knaben Wunderhorn verses of the final movement very beautifully indeed, not chirpingly as some do but with wonderment and humor as all should. She stood, would you believe, even taller than Señor Heras-Casado; quite the sight.

MEHTA-PHOBIA

MEHTA-PHOBIA: Now and then you couldn’t help but recognize the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic: in the grandiose oratory of the massed brass that brought the first movement of the Bruckner Ninth to its close; to the trio of the scherzo of the Schubert Ninth, when strings and winds conspired  to force open vistas across the Vienna woods, with their ever-so-slightly (“gemütlich”) off-the-beat accents that constitutes the Viennese smile. But the concerts here at Disney were no happy events over all; the programming was ridiculous, and Zubin Mehta was in charge. Program #1 had as its central attraction a set of songs by Joseph Marx. Already in my student years in Vienna — 1953, say — he was one of the last of Vienna’s surviving dinosaurs, those stirrers of the soup-pots in which bubbled the chromatic dregs of Wagnerism mingled with a thin Brahmsian treacle. Herr Marx would perch in his box at the Musikverein, desperate to be noticed; not many did. Last Tuesday a clutch of his songs were sung just okay by a certain Angela Maria Blasi. Next night there was time put to even poorer use in a different fashion the sweet but fatuous F-minor Piano Concerto of Chopin employed as a wind-up toy for the garish talents of Lang Lang, an unconscionable squandering of arguably the world’s finest symphony orchestra as backup for beyond-argument the world’s most tragically wasted potential keyboard virtuoso.
    I have dealt with the phenomenon of Mehta often enough; I have come no closer than ever to understanding the circumstances that maintain his career. The essence of the basic symphonic repertory continues to elude him: the achievement of the orchestral balance that might clarify the imponderable scoring in a Bruckner symphony; the line of thought in that music that keeps the music moving forward even when dear old Anton finds it necessary to come to a sudden stop. As for the Schubert Ninth, the major work on the second of the two concerts, I only wonder that some members of that splendid orchestra – whose personnel does, indeed, include a Schubert (Gerald) among its mellifluous violins – do not rise up in protest against a reading of their musical patrimony so stodgy in rhythm, so crude in its orchestral balance. Ah me, I remember all too well the even sadder night back in 1964, when the younger and wetter-behind-the-ears Zubin brought his ruined Los Angeles Philharmonic to a misbegotten Carnegie Hall debut for which neither it nor he was anywhere near ready – propelled by the same misguided civic pride that had pushed Mehta into the job – and wrought the same havoc on the same Schubert Ninth. You could look it up.
   At least he was young and exotic then, with those flashing Parsi eyes; if he couldn’t woo the music, he could the influential ladies out front. Now he fixes the world with an angry glare, and oozes his way toward the podium as if he’d just peed in his pants, bearing on his stooped shoulders the remnants of a glory that might have been, but which has been too often wrongly steered.

SATURDAY’S treasures made everything seem right again. In the afternoon the L.A. Opera revived its enchanting 2007 staging of Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde, again somewhat adrift in the vast and acoustically-troubled space of the downtown Cathedral but redeemed by the shared wonderment of the capacity crowds at the two performances. All hail James Conlon, who shaped the musical forces that included a contingent from his own Opera Orchestra, a larger group from Hamilton High and the Colburn School, and Children’s Choruses from all over to sing and to bang on things. All hail Eli Villanueva, under whose direction the Cathedral space was filled with the goofy magic of flying birds on long sticks, an all-but-realistic Ark, and anything else you’d need to bring to life the medieval retelling of the legend of Noah and his Flood.
     Britten’s special achievement in this work of 1958 has been to create musical drama that is both simple in its appeal to a young audience and completely valid and interesting to listeners of every age. He continued in this vein with his short “Church Parables” but Noye remains special. Its two adult roles – Mr. And Mrs. Noah – demand strong voices; they were sung here by James Johnson and Beth Clayton, both currently involved in the Ring. The piece lasts about an hour, and at the end you feel completely fulfilled.
    At night there was Jacaranda, also in a church – Santa Monica’s First Pres —  but one of comfortable size (and also pretty close to jam-packed). The Messiaen centennial celebration continues, with its imaginative excursions around the periphery and an occasional peek into the center. This last was fulfilled with a couple of songs, flown in on the wings of Jacquelynne Fontaine, an enchanting soprano new to us  and all the more wondrous for that. She then went on to more familiar realm, the Fifth of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, the one that starts with the haunting cantilena you’ll never get out of your head, followed by lesser stuff.
      Other Villa-Lobos had begun the program, the Rudepoema for solo piano, a continuous essay in irrational virtuosic demands, apparently written as a portrait of Artur Rubinstein (in 1927, when he might have come close to mastering it). A slender, cool  chap named Danny Holt mastered the daylights out of it at Jacaranda: a phenomenal performance. Rationality was restored at program’s end, with the marvelously clear-headed Trio of Maurice Ravel, delivered in like manner  by string players  Tereza Lucia Stanislav, Cecilia Tsan and pianist Robert Edward Thies. All hail them, too.

MOSTLY MENDELSSOHN

SINS OF MY DEJA VU
“Equally rare was the slickly pretentious sonata for violin and cello of Ravel, performed by [Boris] Koutzen and son George with skill and understanding. [signed] A.R.” New York Sun, February 17, 1948.
  Hearing Ravel’s imaginatively colored Sonata at last week’s Philharmonic Chamber Music concert, its marvelous string of conversations  on matters sophisticated, sometimes exotic, a faint and not very happy memory  came around to ruffle my conscience. Later, at home, I dug through yellowed newsprint and came across the above shameful item, back from my days as stringer for the late Irving Kolodin at the New York Sun, when I was called upon to write about  dozens of concerts, hearing a lot of music for the first time, but obsessed with the necessity to express an opinion on every work, familiar or not. I know stringers here in town these days obsessed of the same delusion, and as I have ripened into a deeper understanding  of music, so has my passion increased to wring every one of their goddam necks.
  At Disney the Ravel was played by Philharmonic members Robert Vijay Gupta and Ben Hong with, as I was saying, “skill and understanding.” It is really a wise and complex work, full of contrapuntal devices and borrowings from other adventurous composers of the time – Kodály, Bartók. (Hear it again next Friday, same performers, at the Culver City Town Hall.) Actually, this was one of the most rewarding of the Philharmonic’s chamber concerts; the Brahms Horn Trio ensued, one of that Hamburger’s less uningratiating works – actually bright at times – and the concluding Mendelssohn Trio was, for once, not the overplayed  D-minor but the C minor, positively jaunty by contrast.
     Camille Avellano, William Lane and Norman Krieger performed the Brahms; Johnny Lee, Brent Samuel and Chris Weldon, the Mendelssohn, — all Philharmonickers, of course, but their credentials pale to ash beside the blurbs for the Ravel gang. Get a load: Robert Gupta, who joined the Philharmonic two years ago, at 19, studied with Isaac Stern among others, and between practice sessioms took part in research projects  in neuro- and neurodegenerative biology. He has worked on spinal chord neuronal regeneration and on the pathology of Parkinson’s disease and, if you’re ready, has authored  an award-winning study  on the toxicological effects of platinum nanoparticles on embryonic chickens.
    And then there’s Ben Hong, who rides three sports motorcycles, bicycles, scuba dives, practices martial arts and West African drumming.
     And did I tell you about my B.A.? All the way to pre-med, I’ll have you know.

FELICITIES: This is a Felix Mendelssohn year (along with Lincoln, Haydn, probably more…). We’ve already gotten  Elijah out of the way; let’s hope that also absolves us of St. Paul. There are small Mendelssohn treasures – orchestrations of some of the piano pieces and a hilarious choral number affixed to the finale of the “Scotch” Symphony – in the music Erich Korngold concocted for his filmscore for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now finally out on DVD. Last week James Conlon crossed the street to Disney Hall, to guest-conduct the Philharmonic in all-Mendelssohn, a program if anything too short; I would have wanted more of the miraculous “Dream” music, but that would have meant bringing in a women’s chorus, and the economy, you know… Anyhow, Conlon is attached to the First Symphony, which the Philharmonic had never before played. (Imagine!)
    This Symphony is more than a curio, not quite a masterpiece; it stands honorably beside the boyhood symphonies of Schubert as thoroughly proficient and certainly worth a place in the repertory. It is delightfully easy to fathom what was on its composer’s mind: the Mozart 40th and 41st  high  on the list, with their serious, eager counterpoint and, in the 41st,  their bright, brassy perorations. But that clarinet solo in the finale, over string pizzicato (and the way Lorin Levee played it), is pure Mendelssohn-to-be. If anything, the big ideas in all four movements suggest longer structures than the cautious young composer allots us; I had the feeling of 40 minutes of music crammed into twenty-five.
     Sarah Chang played the inevitable Violin Concerto, but played it better than I had expected from the inevitable Sarah Chang of the recent past. Perhaps she has finally outgrown the inevitable Bruch-at-the-Bowl; from her playing this time I heard simple, beautiful phrasing, a sense of real involvement, even humor, in  what is, actually, one of music’s most congenial masterpieces.

The Ring Resounds

UP ONE RUNG: Okay, here’s our Ring,  — or Chapter One, anyhow — trailing its $-multi-million price tag, its years-long saga of rumor and expectation, raised hopes and dashed.  By now they’ll probably have ironed out the inevitable first-night glitches  in this fearsome mechanism that makes the old Grendel set look like Tiddley-Winks.  At the dress rehearsal they had to stop, because Achim Freyer’s stage machinery wouldn’t  allow  his world to swing open and permit passage to Alberich’s underworld.  Those of us privileged to witness this mini-disaster held our breath on opening night. That time, the world swung open on cue.  So, in Achim Freyer’s hands, does Wagner’s world, the one which begins and ends in the span of eighteen hours of music drama – throbbing, chromatic, heroic, exasperating,  gorgeous, unforgettable.
The Ring is the sacred plaything among operas and opera companies.  On my own shelf there’s a DVD version set in naturalistic scenery, another in an Industrial Revolution setting among  factories, another in the basement of a modern office building – plumbing ‘n’all.  The San Francisco  Opera is running Francesca  Zambello’s madcap  version set in the American Wild West.  There have been Rings with a Freudian spin, or a Marxist. True believers among Wagnerian audiences can always be heard comparing how many Rings they’ve seen. They can usually count at least one Ring per finger.
L.A. Opera’s Ring is  the first ever mounted  here, Its four sectors are being doled out over two seasons; Die Walküre, which has most of the hit tunes, comes in on April 4. Saturday night we got Das Rheingold,   running through March 15, which  is actually a kind of prologue that sets the whole kaboodle in motion. It runs a painless  2-1/2 hours; the other parts run four or five. Plenty happens, though; most important  is that Wotan pulls off the gigantic swindle which, eighteen hours of opera later, will destroy him, the rest of the Gods and all their offspring and start the whole cycle again. (Thus:  “ring.”)
The production – design and  direction both – is the work of Achim Freyer, a German visual genius whose previous work here includes the  spectacular  Damnation of Faust. Not for Freyer this baloney of a transplanted  Ring into the Wild West, or a Freudian rewrite.  An abstractionist in Germany’s opera houses and art galleries, a much-honored painter adept at expressing much with  minimums of light and line, Freyer has created a  Ring that is deeply, intensely – and, for the most part, gorgeously – about itself.
Following Wagner’s practice at his own theater in Bayreuth,  Freyer  covers the orchestra pit, setting the Rhine Maidens afloat in the almost total darkness of the Chandler Pavilion. Beams of light then rake the stage; they form a counterpoint  as the evil Alberich perpetrates his grand theft, and they lead the eye upward to  the Gods’ world, from which Wotan,  in need of closing the escrow on Valhalla, sets out with Loge to secure  some new gold for the deal.  Their visit to Alberich’s den of iniquity occasions one of the few iniquities in the production itself: Rather than the charming ding-a-ding-ding of  Alberich’s vassals pounding on their  anvils, we get a less agreeable amplified thud.
Across vast distances , on a stage with a few acoustic dead spots the vocal forces grapple bravely with Wagner’s not-always-ingratiating  lines: Michelle DeYoung and Vitalij Kowalijow as the squabbling Wotans, Ellie Dehn as the sweet-voiced, put-upon beauty-goddess Freia,  Graham Clark as the blacksmith Mime –done up on an oversized face mask in an uncanny resemblance to newspaper tycoon Sam Zell – and, an irresistible scene-stealer, Arnold Bezuyen as the master-conniver fire-demigod Loge.
The Wagnerian world, in Freyer’s design, is a stage-filling disc that flickers and oozes and bedazzles. You work your way through a myriad of symbols that are of no time and place, every time and every place – from the mundane carpenter’s ruler with which the Giants measure their pile of gold to the cage that Wotan must wear as a trap for his marital hanky-panky. . In the moment of Donner’s thunderstorm,  the entire great stage shatters and reforms as a billowing blood-red fabric inundation,  out of which the cries of the cheated Rhine Maidens mingle with the heroic forecasts from James Conlon’s eloquent, surging orchestra. All the  while, suspended  overhead  (okay, he’s in a  toy airplane,  so?),  the god Froh traces the rainbow bridge that the Gods will cross to the newly paid-for Valhalla. You gotta be there.

MEANWHILE, BACK ON EARTH: Christian Zacharias’ visits to the Philharmonic are always worthwhile; they usually have him at work both as conductor (always at ground level, without podium) and pianist.  His program began down in depths even undreamed by Wagner, the dreary Second Serenade of Brahms, its inferior tunesmanship  muddied all the more by the lack of violins in the reduced orchestra. Far more interesting was the program’s major novelty, a Sinfonia Concertante by Haydn, a late work dating from the composer’s first time in London, with large orchestra and solos by violin, cello, oboe and bassoon. It’s a really strong work, with “daring” key-changes and a lovely slow-movement melody, a worthy compa nion to the first set of “London” Symphonies that date from the same time,
Schumann’s Piano Concerto, a work I tend to regard as perfect, ended the evening gloriously: tempos somewhat on the brisk side, but every measure a love letter, sealed and delivered.

NOBODY'S COUNTING

JUST HOME FROM A DAS RHEINGOLD TECH REHEARSAL. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT NOT GOING.

AS THE PAPERS FOLD, ONE BY ONE, LA CITYBEAT is a small, free, alternative weekly; run by good guys and willing to allot space now and then to my writing– some of it from this blog, some not,  for at least pocket money After several decades of seeing myself on newsprint, it’s good to be back.

SOMETHING OLD.. Gradually, the handsome and comfortable Broad Stage, the new concert hall  on the Santa Monica College campus,  takes its place as an important addition to the cultural landscape. Last week saw the beginning of  the L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s “Westside Connections,” the double meaning of which has to do with establishing a toehold in that new territory and also in offering an interesting concert format connecting music and the spoken word. Bravo to both.
At Thursday’s concert  the words were spoken by Dana Gioia – poet, author, until last month head of the National Endowment for the Arts (of doomed memory, I fear). He read, most beautifully, his own poetry and the writings of others: Romantics, Blake and Browning, those guys. (Will anyone ever run out of the wonderment of “fearful symmetry”?) The chamber music, by Mendelssohn and Schumann, tuned perfectly to the mood of the poetry, even the rich chalumeau of Gioia’s reading. One work, a String Quintet in B flat by Mendelssohn, not early but with the same exuberance that we know from his youthful  Octet, was new to me and wonderful. LACO’s Jeff Kahane sat next to me, and we exchanged delighted glances at this discovery

EVEN OLDER…The titles that survive in Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen – “Monkeys’ Dance”, “Dance of the Chinese Man” measured against the work itself, a fanciful paraphrase of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a century later – arouse curiosity; the deep, rich, Baroque beauty of the music, with its courageous range of dissonance, needs no defense. Martin Haselböck and his Musica Angelica gave us the whole magnificent two hours’ worth, Sunday  at Broad, with the Concord Ensemble – an excellent small chorus – and an outstanding gathering of vocal soloists led by the crystalline soprano of Lisa Saffer, the always-solid bass of Michael Dean but also including a newcomer, Catherine Webster, pressed into service on a couple of days’ notice. Unheralded, out of the ensemble, a lithe and witty young tenor  named Pablo Corá also deserved notice.
You all know Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and it is a masterpiece no doubt. But there are others, from the short lifetime of this phenomenally talented  Brit with a particular gift toward infusing his music with a powerful theatrical sense. Early in life he absorbed the genius of Monteverdi, and this comes through in all his dramatic works, including Dido. A reasonably well-behaved  Fairy Queen should be within the purview of the Long Beach Opera, monkey dances ‘n’ all.

SOMETHING NEW…Founded in Poland, based in Canada, the Penderecki String Quartet was a frequent visitor to the Monday Evening Concerts during their (sob!) days at LACMA. More’s the pity that their REDCAT concert last Saturday offered only half a program. But that half was mostly George Crumb’s sizzling Black Angels, his Vietnam outcry with gongs, electrified strings, ancient howls – music that has not lost one syllable of its pristine message. I would never want to share a program with Black Angels, and this night at REDCAT wasn’t easy on Veronica Krausas or Arnold Schoenberg, whose music just tagged along (with some nice visuals). Michael Gordon’s Weather, filled the evening’s other half, an unwelcome guest, its raggedy minimalist patterns ground out by a CalArts string ensemble on a flat stage instead of the requisite scaffolding to provide a sense of dimension. It was further flattened by the sad and soggy level of the performance under Mark Menzies.

NEWER YET…The Monday Evening Concerts, aforementioned,  have since their founding (in 1939!) set the worldwide example in maintaining a pace the proper distance ahead of everyone else in musical creativity and consumption. Attempts to clip their wings, as when LACMA kicked them off the premises three years ago, have gone rightly nowhere. I miss their former involvement with West Coast music-making, but their international outlook is brave, and Monday night’s sold-out audience at Zipper Hall crowned the efforts of Justin Urcis and his cohorts.
The music was that of the late Gérard Grisey, spokesman of French spectralisme, on-the-edge experimental stuff, wherein one composes with sounds, not notes, and no longer with sounds but with the differences that separate them; to act on these differences; on their evolution or non-evolution; and the speed of this evolution.
Still here? Monday’s concert involved, first, half an hour of percussion ensemble, ringing the room. Then, a work that began with a solo viola  gradually merging into a small orchestra with, I quote, “three kinds of…growing loudness or tension…analogous to the phases of human respiration…” the whole shebang enduring close to an hour.  Steven Schick’s percussion ensemble, red fish blue fish, banged bravely through the first music; Michel Galante led the Argento Chamber Ensemble, a fearless international ensemble, through the second work, which bore the lovely title Les espaces Acoustiques.
The full house cheered both, to the rafters. Go figure.

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.

Fox Trot

THE REAL THING
This was to be my last piece for Bloomberg. Theirs the loss.

If you were moved – nay, charmed, delighted, fascinated – by The Cunning Little Vixen at the Long Beach Opera last month, you’ve probably already discovered the excellent versions on DVD – the cute but satisfactory version in animation conducted by Kent Nagano, and the authoritative performance under the Janacek specialist Sir Charles Mackerras. There is one other, however – old, faded but magical. I saw it once on tape in the 1970s, when its creator brought it to a Boston audience at the invitation of Sarah Caldwell – and held us spellbound.  I never hoped to see it again. Now everybody can.

That is the production of Walter Felsenstein, the crown of his leadership of East Berlin’s Komische Oper, 1947-1971, when that company was reconstituted after WWII.  Seven of Felsenstein’s productions were filmed under his supervision, some remodeled from their stage versions, some filmed “straight.” All seven now come on DVD, in a box of twelve discs, marketed at the absurdly low price of $149. None of them represent “authentic” versions of the operas at hand; some are in black&white, only one of the seven (Fidelio)  is sung in its proper language, and that one is drastically cut (for the better). But there is a level of dramatic creativity here that is so fascinating, so worth your study and your ponder, that this handsomely produced Art-Haus box from our friends at Naxos cannot be dismissed. And in the case of the “drastically cut” Fidelio, which is furthermore played in fresh German air rather than on a stodgy stage set, I cannot see anyone going back to all that silly operetta stuff at the beginning of the original score, once we learn the essence of Beethoven’s true drama.

But it is the Vixen that really sells this set. Felsenstein moved his production from the opera house to East German TV studios, where he could have a free hand with the forest insects and animals, and with the yokels of the human story as well. The interaction among the species is simply fabulous in the literal sense; the wooing of the two foxes will take you to within earshot of Tristan. Rudolf Asmus, who sings the Forester, was one of the few notable stars of Felsenstein’s East German company; a few Americans had also slipped through the Curtain and show up in minor roles. Nobody in his company is less than competent; the once-famous Magda Laszlo is Fidelio’s Fidelio,  the voice-over for a handsome lad who actually looks the part.

The value in these performances cuts far deeper than vocal quality. What stands out above all in this Felsenstein repertory is the naturalness in the ensemble action: the way the characters in Mozart’s Figaro really seem to listen to one another; the sly insidiousness as Iago plays upon Otello’s mounting suspicions, the non-stop sequence of action, from soliloquy to rape to murder, in the first breathless moments of Don Giovanni. Two Offenbach operas – Hoffmann and Bluebeard – offer profound insights into the serious nature of human comedy.

These may not be the only DVD productions of these operas you’ll want to own. You may not want a German-sung Figaro, nor a Don Giovanni in black-and-white, as the only versions on your shelves. But there is the surpassing stagecraft at work in every one of these seven operas, and it rises to genius level in the Vixen. Ancient its sight and its sound may be, it is opera like nothing else you’ll ever see.

TREASURES

TREASURES: When did you last hear the B-minor Rondo Brillante of Schubert? Thursday’s Tetzlaff/Andsnes recital was marvelously played (as expected) and no less brilliantly planned. This Rondo ended it, a big, expansive work from 1826; Schubert had the “Great” C-,major Symphony behind  him, and had learned by then  how to flex his muscles in large instrumental forms. This work, written for a fiery Hungarian violinist, runs on and on, leapfrogging into unexpected key-areas and coming up with bright, nervy melodic gambits. Nine out of ten violinists will downplay Schubert’s music for violin and piano on the strength of a handful of early pieces, while this marvelous late work goes ignored; I don’t remember ever hearing it before in concert; I know a pokey recording from years ago by the Menuhins. This performance was a revelation – but not to the ears of the emissary of the L.A. Times, however, who wrote of this strong, unique work as “salon music.” Have people simply stopped listening?
Also a revelation, for that matter, was the Mozart Sonata that preceded it, a work in F major (K. 377), a key-signature that usually promises gentility and regularity of form. Not this time, however; after quite a predictable sonata-formal first movement Mozart leads the expectations delightfully astray. His slow movement is quite a somber set of variations in the key – D minor – that always stands in for high drama; the finale is a not-very-danceable minuet with some exquisite turns of harmony.
More Janacek; there can never be too much.The Violin Sonata, which began the
concert ,.is an early work, colored by the composer’s nationalist awareness, not yet by the personal emotions that make the later works so fascinating. Next came the Brahms D-minor Sonata, last, most concise and best of his three. It got exactly the right performance: on the somewhat reserved side, aloof from the easy sentiment that can turn the middle movements mushy. (I treasure the old Szigeti/Petri recording; this performance came close.)
This was a great evening: violin and piano without flash or schmaltz; even the encores were unusual; when did you last hear the Sibelius Country Dances? The crowd was of excellent size; the few empty seats were over on the right side.

The weekend’s offerings were mostly a sad affair, saddest of all with the news that Steven Stucky’s services as new-music advisor, or consulting composer – or whatever  the title – are apparently winding down. No orchestra to my knowledge has drawn so richly, so continuously on such valued advice  as the service Stucky has afforded the Philharmonic since coming aboard in 1988. An exceptional composer in his own right, he has guided composers through the process of having their music heard without regard to favoring a particular style or musical language. Just the way he has spoken about new music – all kinds of new music – at the pre-concert events in BP Hall  is been of a quality I have never heard matched at any other orchestra I have visited. In short, he has created both an orchestra and an audience for new music that has been a vital part of this city’s musical growth. He will be irreplaceable.
There was a small, prickly and delightful work by Stucky at this weekend’s concert: Son et Lumière, a charmer, nicely managed by Leonard Slatkin and the orchestra. There wasn’t much else. Tchaikovsky’s R&J sort of flopped along, a gloomy fustian Violin Concerto by Glazunov  sounded the way Hilary Hahn was garbed, and then there was the portentous tosh of a Third Symphony by former Chief Executive Bill Schuman, Don’t get me started.

OBITUARY PAGE: If I were to keep up with deaths or cancellations in the realm of arts criticism I would need to run this column 24/7 which, in my advanced years, might  be difficult. However, you might be interested to learn that, for the second time in a year, I have been ushered into the ranks of the unemployed. Bloomberg News, which scooped me up last April when the LA Weekly was obliged to curtail its culture, has now dropped its freelance arts coverage, for the usual reasons. I asked my editor whether this included John Simon’s theater reviews and was told, “No, his name is on the sides of buses.” If someone has a bus for sale, cheap, I’d like to hear. At least they can’t fire me from “So I’ve Heard.”
Watch this space.

Nelson, Jeanette & MTT

…so anyhow, the great Trentini comes to town with his dramatic new opera Tsaaritza, hearts aflame in the time of the Tsars, and Nelson and Jeanette, who used to be lovers but who’ve been apart for lo these many years, have now been cast in the leading romantic roles. Comes the big I’ve-always-loved-you-but-now-we-must-part duet at the end; they look into each other’s eyes…bingo!!! Trouble is that John Barrymore, who has been Jeanette’s Papa Bear all these years, is in the audience this night, and when he observes this obvious exchange of pheromones on the stage of the opera house he happens – oh, by the way – to own, he smells a very live rat. And so he packs his trusty pistol and goes off to pay Nelson a call. Fade to Jeanette, some 40 years later, still wrapped in memories of Maytime. (That’s the name of the movie,  by the way — not yet, alas, on DVD.) Oh, I almost forgot. The music for this splendid drama is none other than the last ten-or-so minutes of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, that stirring peroration in which the dour little theme that’s been tugging pathetically at our sleeve for the previous 40 minutes finally gets some air into its lungs and makes its presence known in full brass.
I suppose it’s possible to deliver a creditable performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth without Maytime on your mind, although it’s as valid a point of reference as any. MTT’s performance at Disney on Monday night, with his own San Francisco Symphony, was the full choreographic treatment, genuflections ‘n’ all. Basically this was, as expected, a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas of an MTT performance. The orchestra, at the end of an extended West Coast tour, sounded just okay, a minor rough spot here and there. (I must mind my manners with the SF Symphony. I cut my teeth on this orchestra. My first exercises as a critic were my weekly tirades on KPFA in the ‘50s. That orchestra, of course, is gone, and so are my teeth.). There was more of the same at the start, pure show-off music for brass band by Himself titled Street Song; in between came the last of Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos, not unattractive but a curious package of mismatched parts with  Garrick Ohlsson as the conquering hero.
A line from Schubert governed my decision concerning tonight’s Brahms First:
“Dort, wo  du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück.”

On Sunday there was ELIJAH, that way station between Messiah and Pinafore. How brightly shines its pious light and please, O Lord, may I never hear it again?! Eric Owens was terrific in the title role; Mary Wilson – beautifully named for the job she had to do – was the most angelic of angels – and that kid, Jeffrey something, did all he could considering that somebody had stolen his microphone. (Is there some law against allowing children actually being heard on large stages? I remember they make a rather nice sound.)
There was no text printed in the program book, and none offered as super-titles; if we have become spoiled by that latter amenity, so  be it, but Elijah unwinds as a fairly long and complicated narrative, more so than Messiah, which nobody would dare deny an audience. A Master Chorale minion, when complained to, came back with the message that “management wanted the audience to enjoy the total experience, “or some such baloney. The least that should have happened under such circumstances should have been to leave the houselights sufficiently lit for us to follow the excellent but extensive essay in the program – not a narrative but at least a guide. I have been angered before at vocal programs in Disney offered with the lights dim or actually off. It’s an insult to singers and listeners; this was one more instance. We can decide our own total experience by sitting with our eyes shut.

ARCHIVALIUM: A couple of weeks ago I made the observation, in deepest friendship, that my esteemed colleague Mark Swed was ”full of old shoes”in his judgment of a certain Beethoven performance – that being about the gentlest comeback that occurred to me at the time. Little did I realize the storm those words would unleash, climaxing with a demand from a distinguished member of the critical press – a former colleague, no less – demanding that I supply him (and by extension, I suppose, my other seven readers) with information as to the brand of shoe!
Now I have no intention of committing so blatant a breach of journalistic probity but I can, in good faith I sincerely believe, reveal the source of the remark, in the hope of (ahem!) enriching the vernacular. When I was, let’s say, six, my parents were wont to hire occasional housemaids from the crop that constantly poured into Boston on the Yarmouth boats; a lively, lusty crop they were. Evelyn was one, and it was she who would often tease me, in our flat on Columbia Street Brookline, with a “Laddie, you’re full of old shoes.”It’s not the sort of thing you forget.
One more thing about Evelyn: she sang. She had a song about “A little rosewood casket,” which I loved. I learned to pick it out on the piano (Kranich & Bach, baby grand). My mother rushed me into the clutches of an elderly family friend, Miss Amolski, who gave me finger exercises but killed any possible love of music. Miss Amolski had another pupil, Robert Rhines. “Why can’t you play as fast as Robert Rhines?” she would cackle. Robert Rhines ended up heading an expedition into the wilds of Scotland, in search of the Loch Ness Monster.
So much for old shoes.

Happiness

HAPPINESS: It hit me during Wednesday afternoon’s Magic Flute at the Music Center that I had become beset by a wave of unusual happiness. The reason was easily traced: this was, simply, the best performance I had ever heard of Mozart’s wonderfully wise and daffy music – or, let’s say at least, the best performance I could, or cared to, remember out of probably four or five dozen. Everything was in balance, beginning with Jimmy Conlon’s orchestra, exactly the right size. This was the second cast, and it was over-all excellent: Joseph Kaiser, a fresh-voiced, expressive Tamino, winner of one of Plácido’s Operalalia comps; Erin Wall a lovely Pamina; Albina Shagimuratova a dazzling Queen of the Night with every high F resplendent; Morris Robinson a Sarastro just a shade gruff but moving even so; Markus Werba a scene-stealing Papageno. The old (1993) Gerald Scarfe sets are still hilarious; someone has apparently touched them up somewhat.
I had missed the first-cast performances; the Philharmonic, Jacaranda and other music-makers had created an unusually chaotic (and exciting) January. At this writing there are two first-cast performances left (January 22 and 25) and one with this splendid second cast (January 24). All three performances include Greg Fedderly’s hilarious Monostatos and Matthias Goerne’s expressive stint as the “Speaker,” on whose haunting A-minor recitative the whole plot of the opera turns.
(While I’m on that subject: The Kenneth Branagh Magic Flute, which Mark Swed wrote about several weeks ago and which is available from British dealers but only in PAL format, double-casts the roles of Sarastro and The Speaker with the same singer, the wonderful René Pape. The expressive gain is beyond calculation.)

LOUIS BLOOIE: Andriessen’s week here was capped at the Green Umbrella with a  super-production of De Stijl,: spellbinding music for swinging brass, electric guitars, grinding rhythms.  The sound itself bounced all over that great space one piano tucked implausibly on one of the audience terraces, Susan Narucki (great, imaginative angel of new music) wandering hither and yon hurling forth gobs of wisdom; supertitles linked the music’s implausibility to the scraps of somebody-or-other’s text on the principles (!) of visual mathematics; the stage biz carried this further into the spirit of Mondrian; the music attached itself utterly in the cause of a splendid insanity.. Sad, that Louis couldn’t be there; he’d been called home by a death in the family. Performances of De Stijl can’t be all that common, and this one – devised with great skill by the Philharmonic’s marvelous young assistant Lionel Bringuier, left ‘em gasping in the aisles. All Louis  got to hear during the Philharmonic’s great new-music celebration was his new piece The Hague Hacking, bland by comparison, inspired (he insisted) by the Tom ‘n’ Jerry cartoon about the Hungarian Rhapsody.
Otherwise, there wasn’t much under the Umbrella. Stephen Mackey’s Ars Moriendi, played by Philharmonic members, struck me – as it had when the Borromeos played it here eight years ago – as a piece both distasteful and boring. Distasteful, in the matter of drawing descriptive music, complete with titles, from the death of a parent; boring, in the matter of being boring.

LEOS JANACEK had a happy week, and deserved no less. Salonen and the Philharmonic began the last of their January programs here with the Sinfonietta, that grand whoop-de-doo that begins with massed brass spilling out of the balcony, wanders off into a couple of bucolic dance episodes of great charm but no particular consequence, and ends up back with the brass. I love the work, but don’t try to pin me down to explain why. At this concert, with Andriessen’s Hague piece in the middle, the Sinfonietta served as the opener; Salonen’s signature performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring served as the closer. How’s that for a pair of mismatched bookends?
Further down the pike, the Long Beach Opera began to behave like an opera company again with Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen that was splendid in the way the Long Beach Opera used to be splendid: ten cents worth of production, a million dollars worth of spirit and imagination. I love the way this warm, wise, immensely human piece has come into its own. Even the legendary East Berlin staging by Walter Felsenstein from the 1950s is now available on DVD, in a box of several of his productions released on Naxos. Andreas Mitisek came to local light conducting quite a different Janacek opera, the harrowing House of the Dead; that work and, now, this Vixen, are his best work at Long Beach; they suggest a direction for a restoration of that company’s importance and distinction. With opera dead or dying in Orange County, and our local company about to immolate itself in a festival of citywide Apfelstrudel, the road is open for Mitisek’s company – with the blessing of founder Michael Milenski from his far-away paradise  on the Midi – to restore former glories.