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Encounters Across Time 

Wednesday, Oct 28 1998
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In 1928, Arnold Schoenberg began sketches for his Moses und Aron and completed his orchestration of Bach's "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue: the one an opera completely atonal in style, the other a transcription of music that celebrates the full glory of God, at overpowering length, in the golden resonance of the key of E-flat major. The opera has made its way slowly; I wouldn't want to hang by my thumbs awaiting its appearance at our local company. The Bach transcription has also reached us only now, in its first performance ever by the Philharmonic, last weekend under Sylvain Cambreling.

Pasteurized and purified as we have become in the hands of the authenticity worshippers, such vile misdeeds as Schoenberg's inflation of Bach's organ masterpiece are no longer to be tolerated, or so the story runs. Still, I suffer no conscience pangs from my delight at the glorious noise that filled the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last Sunday afternoon. If the miscreant Schoenberg made his presence blatantly apparent, so, through Schoenberg's machinations, did Bach. When Schoenberg hands over the consequent phrase of the opening proclamatory tune to six - count 'em, six - clarinets, the sound that emerges is the mellow bellow of a dreamed-of instrument with which some future organ-designing genius may, with extreme luck, bless us all. Not one but two contrabassoons are enlisted by Schoenberg throughout the piece to simulate those 32-foot fundamentals that might, in some provincial organ loft, demolish the sturdiest stained glass. The sound is glorious. No, make that stupendous.

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Sure, the desecrations that Schoenberg imposed upon Bach - not to mention his enterprising aggrandizement of the Brahms G-minor Piano Quartet that Anne Manson conducts on this week's Philharmonic program - were duplicated in the manicured hands of Leopold Stokow-ski with his reams of Bach orchestrations that still survive on disc. The philosophies were different, however. Stokowski covered his sins with the proclamation, many times professed, that if Bach were alive today he'd undoubtedly be composing for Wagner-size orchestral forces. Schoenberg reversed the process: In this "St. Anne" transcription, and in the two Bach chorale-preludes he had orchestrated some years earlier, he seems intent on proving that Wagner-size or even larger orchestras could, in proper scoring, re-create the sounds of the bygone pipe organ at its most sublime. Rather than the fussy, trickery-infested Stokowski escapades that sound snazzy enough but continually falsify their source, Schoenberg has given us the chance to glimpse the meeting of minds over two centuries, the outlook of a genius of our own century on the towering stature of his immortal predecessor.

I am also still aglow from last week's concert at UCLA's Royce Hall by the wonder-working Jordi Savall and his ensembles: the instrumental group Hesperion XX and the vocal sextet La Capella Reial de Catalunya, joyously giving off songs, dances and sacred pieces from 16th-century Spain, the "Golden Century" under Philip II. Savall and his viola da gamba made it to the charts with his music in Tous les Matins du Monde, and then, in an astounding turnaround, delighted us all by leading a period-instrument orchestra in a fabulous Beethoven "Eroica" (on Audivis, get it). In this Royce concert, too, there was a meeting across centuries - music fashioned to the taste of a bygone society, composed in a bygone artistic language, interacting with the wisdom of modern interpreters who have studied its nature and devised their own synthesis of "could" and "might" to create an acceptable facsimile of "authentic" or "historically informed" performance.

That, I think, needs remembering whenever old music - 4 years or 4 centuries old - comes to mind. We can restore or reconstruct period noisemakers; Hesperion's collection of cornetto, chirimia (an oboe ancestor), sacabuche (= sackbut = trombone), bajon (= bassoon), plus string instruments bowed and plucked, forms a handsome assembly. We can figure out the notes these instruments once played, or come fairly close. To re-create this music fully, however, we would also need to re-create the impulse that moved performers 400 years ago from one note to the next, and the interrelation between those notes and the people who heard them, were moved by them to dance or sing along and to share the ecstasy of their invention.

These are elements that composers of any era, including our own, cannot write down or type into a computer. The music at the Hesperion concert seemed to exhilarate the performers, who in turn were wonderfully adept at passing that feeling on to the happy and large crowd at Royce with a trove of highly spiced, delirious musical treasures from four centuries and half a planet away. Performers at Philip's court were well-supported, even as their monarch frittered away the Netherlands half of his empire and saw his Armada turned back by the upstart Brits. But they didn't get to perform their songs and dances on a proscenium stage before an audience of 800. What is "authentic" about concerts such as this - or about the upcoming appearances by the Tallis Scholars or Anonymous 4 at Royce, by the string group Romanesca at the Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel or Sequentia in, for once, a proper-size chapel at Mount St. Mary's - is not so much the interaction between the sights and sounds of bygone music making and a contemporary audience however attuned. Beyond any of this, it's the fact that the beauty in music is a generic phenomenon that exists beyond matters of time.

This past week, I was reached by the dark, mysterious beauty and the delicious rhythmic quirks in just about every note of Jordi Savall's concert; by the hypnotic spookiness of New York's Bang on a Can All-Stars playing Brian Eno's ambient music at El Rey; by Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto at the Philharmonic (a work that I tend to think of as perfect) in Martin Chalifour's unfussy, elegant reading. Others found happiness, but I did not, in the secondhand Stravinsky in Henri Dutilleux's Metaboles, which ended the Philharmonic concert. Music eludes; that may be the greatest of its beauties.

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