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Change of Heart, Loss of Heart 

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
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Photo by Yevgen Khaldei
MY NORMAL REACTION TO THE VIOLIN Concerto of Johannes Brahms is one of resigned tolerance. People whose friendship I cherish pretend to like it, therefore I must. In the past year, however, I have had two epiphanies about the work, which have induced the hallucination that the Brahms Violin Concerto is some kind of masterpiece. One came on hearing the recording with Jascha Heifetz, Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in the first set of restored broadcasts by that orchestra issued several months ago. The second happened last week at the Music Center when the 18-year-old violinist Hilary Hahn and a last-minute-substitute conductor, Leonid Grin, made common cause to the greater glory of the work and to my delighted ears as well.

There are reasons to develop allergies to the hordes of teen and preteen violinists that seem to be pouring out of the woods. Most arrive carrying their own safety net: the repertory of no-brainer concertos (Sibelius, Wieniawski, Lalo, you name it) that can survive in the realm of dimples and baby fat. But Hilary Hahn -- Virginia-born, currently living in Baltimore, product of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, which she entered at the age of 10 -- came on with stronger stuff; she stood up to the Brahms Concerto, conquered it, even turned it into music. She had a splendid partner in Leonid Grin, pressed into service when Franz Welser-Möst called in sick for the second year in a row. In one memorable moment (of many), Grin brought in the orchestra at a barely perceptible pianissimo after the first-movement cadenza, then gradually built to the final climax: a radiant, ecstatic effect. Hahn -- slender, attractive rather than merely pretty -- was wonderful to watch: the give-and-take as she played the eye game with conductor and orchestra, the triumphant thrust as she raised her bow skyward at the end of some particularly juicy phrases.

After enduring the Grammys the night before at the Shrine, observing the chaos surrounding the live production numbers, recoiling at the inanity of perfectly good songs (plus a few clunkers) brutally overarranged for the stay-at-home gee-whizzers, the relative sanity of a Philharmonic concert -- even with Brahms -- served as a welcome restorative. After 55 years of pounding the classical-music beat, I don't find myself choking up all that easily, but I admit with no sense of shame that in raising the Brahms Violin Concerto as a mighty monument, Hilary Hahn also stole my heart.

Ukraine-born Leonid Grin currently leads the San Jose Symphony, to that city's good fortune and, last weekend, to ours as well. Slight of stature, with a facial expression that belies his name, he is all business on the podium, generous of gesture but precise and, I would guess, easy to follow. His program here had been chosen by the absent Welser-Möst and also included the Brahms "Tragic" Overture and the last of Shostakovich's 15 symphonies. Not many conductors can take on the Shostakovich 15th on short notice, but the performance under Grin -- even on the first night, with an orchestra he had never conducted before, in an unfamiliar hall -- was solid, properly proportioned and beautifully balanced.

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The symphony sent the usual number of offended parties toward the exits during its 40-plus minutes. To be sure, it is a hard nut. It dates from 1971; Shostakovich still had three productive years, but this symphony is inevitably regarded as a farewell. Its long, dark stretches of near silence, pierced from time to time by a single instrument, look ahead to passages in the 15th String Quartet of two years later, but they also recall the Sixth Symphony of 1939. Even the quotations from the "Lone Ranger" (i.e., William Tell Overture) theme, which always draw snickers, look back to the finale of the Sixth.

The 15th is by no means a comic work; the clattering small percussion that starts it in high spirits sounds like a death rattle when it returns at the end. Shostakovich apparently composed in waves; this final symphony seems a strange sequel to the violence in Nos. 10­13 and the melancholy of No. 14 -- just as the short and jocular Ninth makes for an incongruous successor to Nos. 7 and 8. The 15th will never be popular; its mood swings defy simple explanation. Still, it was worth hearing this once, in what was surely a stronger performance than the erratic Welser-Möst would have offered.

TALK ABOUT MOOD SWINGS . . . THE ANNUal CalArts new-music bash, which filled a busy week at several downtown locations, came festooned with several subtitles: "Musical Explorations," "Gradual Processes," "Post Minimalist and Beyond," "Pre-Post"; didactic elements freely mingled with the communicative process. At a free concert in MOCA's small Ahmanson Theater, I wasn't notably communicated to by extended works from electronic pioneers Christian Wolff and David Tudor; I heard the latter's Neural Network Plus, created for a Merce Cunningham dance, in considerable pain. Both works seemed more like catalogs of possible electronic sounds, with some assembly still required. Kyle Gann's Custer and Sitting Bull, with texts from the writings of the legendary antagonists and music tuned to what we know about Native American harmonic systems, revealed more convincing values in the electronic realm. And among all the gadgetry, one piece really did take flight: James Tenney's For Ann (rising), an ascending spiral of synthesized sound, like a flock of eagles taking off into bright sunlight, hypnotic in the same way that Mozart and Beethoven (and, yes, even Brahms) sometimes are.

The lines of communication were fully open when the CalArts New Century Players took over last week's "Green Umbrella" concert for an evening mostly about delightful ways of drawing new sounds out of traditional instruments. Former CalArts luminary Lois V Vierk sent along her 1991 Timberline, music that I hear mostly as a portrait of a composer's pleasure in the making of evocative, richly colored sound. Ten players stationed around an open grand piano, playing on the strings with splendidly varied gadgetry, bathed Stephen Scott's Vikings of the Sunrise in audible radiance. Shaun Naidoo's skittish Bad Times Coming, which pianist Vicki Ray had performed with tape at a "Piano Spheres" concert last year, returned with Ray and a live ensemble to even greater effect. For a rare instance on the new-music panorama, it was possible to leave the Japan America Theater that night both reassured and entertained.

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