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Beginnings 

Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
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A silent-movie paean to life at its most forlorn, the grit 'n' gloom of a live soundtrack cobbled from works of the grittiest and gloomiest of composers - who, even among the most sanguine, could have mistaken these as ingredients for a radiant, stirring opening to our Philharmonic's 79th subscription concert season? The cheers at the Music Center last Thursday night, therefore, must have been compounded as much out of surprise as admiration.

There had been other grounds for pessimism. Once before, in the summer of 1990, Peter Sellars had attempted a melding of live music and classic film, a misguided splicing - of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with John Adams' Harmonielehre - that the writer of the Sellars bio in last week's Philharmonic program book wisely overlooked. But Victor Seastrom's The Wind cries out for Sibelius; you can sense that even from the video, with its score by the usually reliable Carl Davis that washes the horror-stricken drama in parlor sentimentality. When the film comes to its misbegotten tacked-on happy denouement commanded by the MGM executives, no music could better suit the moment than the featherbrained brassy rhetoric in the final bars of Sibelius' justly neglected Night Ride and Sunrise.

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And so Sellars this time out, with considerable brainstorming from Esa-Pekka Salonen - who, however, confesses that some of the selections were unfamiliar even to him - has concocted a Sibelius potpourri for The Wind in which both music and film sounded and looked better together than either element by itself. Some of the joinings of music and action were remarkably coordinated; a few blasts of taped wind noise interspersed between musical selections helped with the timing. There were production problems inherent in the hall; the screen, as large as it could be in its allotted space, was still too small; the lights on the musicians' stands diminished the stark black-and-white contrasts of the film's magnificent photography. There is a problem there for the Disney Hall designers to countenance, because last week's goings-on suggest that the love feast between film and the Philharmonic, with or without the project's cutesy title, is here to stay.

As the program's brief opener there was Salonen's new nine-minute Gambit, not of the stature of his LA Variations, but proficient on its own: the work of a man who knows what an orchestra is good at doing, and remembers what it has done.

Sixty years ago come next April, brave music lovers and musicians first confronted fearsome new music in Peter Yates' rooftop studio in Silver Lake. "Evenings on the Roof," which turned into "Monday Evening Concerts" and moved to the County Museum, is now the longest-running new-music series anywhere; last week's concert, by Montreal's Nouvel Ensemble Moderne under the leadership of Lorraine Vaillancourt, ushered in an uncommonly substantial and promising anniversary season.

Elliott Carter's 20-minute Clarinet Concerto began the evening, music 2 years old from a composer who turns 90 this December; the 27-minute Secret Theater by Britain's 64-year-old Harrison Birtwistle ended it. Both share a gritty harmonic style right at the edge of tonality. Carter's work is, as usual, basically about itself and its power to generate abstract patterns. I try desperately to discern the "direct poetic beauty" that respected colleagues find in Carter's music and will keep on trying; I fear, however, that we live on different planets. The Birtwistle generates dreamlike shapes, dances and processions seen and heard through shifting fog planes. In a musical vocabulary not much different from Carter's, this work unfolds as a fantasy richly woven and involving.

Both works call for some stage biz. In the Carter, soloist Simon Aldrich moved around the stage to blend his playing into various groups within the ensemble; the Birtwistle encourages most of the players to alternate in performance between standing and sitting. The drab acoustics of the museum's Bing Theater, however, tended to equalize the sound wherever its origin.

Australian Mary Finsterer's glistening sound study Pascal's Sphere and the Alap & Gat by Spanish-born Canadian Jose Evangelista - an attempt, not entirely happy, to translate classical music of India for Western instruments - rounded out the program: lively, provocative, performed with the evangelical intensity that is the prime ingredient of all new-music ensembles. On such occasions, even a museum comes to life.

At Royce Hall, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra began its season with a gala benefit. You only needed the exquisitely balanced, high-spirited Marriage of Figaro Overture to recognize the level that this precious small orchestra has reached under Jeffrey Kahane's leadership. I was, however, less taken by Kahane's rather hard-boiled run through Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, conducted from the keyboard; I didn't sense as much loving as this sovereign work requires. I was not at all taken by soprano Maria Jette's pallid singing of a big Mozart aria and Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with James Agee's beautiful words turned to mush. There was sheer delight, however, in Ginastera's popular and elegantly fashioned Variaciones concertantes, a work designed (or so you might think) specifically to show off the skill of a superb small orchestra before a doting audience of patrons.

The Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra is not quite superb, but I have taken greater pleasure in some of its previous concerts than I found at its season's opener at the Wilshire-Ebell last Saturday. The program was substantial to a fault: the most dramatic of Mozart's Piano Concertos - the C minor, K. 491 - and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Both works, alas, lay beyond the reach of the performers. Local former boy wonder Alan Gampel, now in his mid-30s, whose program-book bio lists impressive worldwide attainments, skittered along the surface of Mozart's wondrous profundities; his hard-as-nails pounding in the last movement suggested an antipathy toward the work bordering on hatred. A memory lapse toward the end, clumsily managed, did not help. Conductor (or "maestra," as the program demands) Lucinda Carver, whose career is also in orbit these days, seemed to have mistaken the momentum in the Beethoven for haste; by ignoring most of the specified repeats, she also undercut the music's marvelous logic. The orchestra did, however, keep up with her, and first French-hornist Jon Titmus hit some incendiary high E's that might have wakened the deaf, Beethoven himself included.

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