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A Liberal Helping of Conservatism 

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
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Photo by Peter Schaaf
TARRED WITH THE BRUSH OF "CONSERVAtive," politicians turn into bogeyman figures suitable for frightening small children. Composers are not so drastically afflicted. Their world may not be mine, but I feel safe there on occasional visits. At Pasadena City College, a small chorus beguiled me most pleasantly with the lavender-and-cream of the bygone Randall Thompson and Ralph Vaughan Williams and their creditable contemporary descendant, the local composer Morten Lauridsen. At the Zipper Auditorium in the new Colburn School downtown, the "serious" doppelgänger of P.D.Q. Bach, who goes by the name of Peter Schickele, came to brimming life in an evening of safely harmonious chamber music. At the Music Center, the Philharmonic's treasurable program included Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, in which old poetry and not-very-new music come together in a rapturous oneness.

Hail Randall Thompson, most ivied of Ivy League musical gentlemen! All college glee clubs have his Alleluia in their luggage: seven or eight minutes on nothing but the one word, its harmonies the billowing sequences of first-inversion triads ("faux-bourdon" in your appreciation textbook) invented in medieval England and seldom out of earshot since. At Pasadena's Harbeson Hall, the 29 members of the Donald Brinegar Singers -- students, teachers, lawyers, folks -- performed the Alleluia out in the room, surrounding the too-small audience. They sang with remarkable purity of tone and pitch, and the effect was bracing and grandiose.

So was the whole program: a parcel of Thompson's settings of Robert Frost -- talk about music matching words! -- the Mystical Songs of Vaughan Williams, with Scott Graff as solo baritone, and two sets of Lauridsen songs. Lauridsen teaches at USC; his Lux Aeterna, recorded on RCM by the Master Chorale, made it to a Grammy nomination last month: good, solid choral writing, old musical languages put to new and lively use. On the Brinegar program I liked best of all Lauridsen's elegant, witty Chansons des Roses of 1993, settings of fragrant Rilke poetry about roses, including thorns.

YOU COULDN'T EASILY CONFUSE THE SERENE elegance of Peter Schickele's chamber music -- now and then rather French in manner, but just as often a kind of quiet, civilized prairie-folksiness -- with the riotous but deadly accurate classical send-ups of his P.D.Q. Bach creations, but there are strong resemblances even so. From the chamber music -- five quartets so far plus works for piano and solo strings -- you recognize a wise, well-schooled creative spirit with an accurate grasp of musical structure, of exactly how long a piece is to run and how it can be made to stop. It is this overarching wisdom, good Juilliard training, plus further study with the likes of Darius Milhaud, that make the P.D.Q. satires succeed on a level above the mere belly laff. He is one of the distinguished few -- Anna Russell is another -- who can extract the ridiculousness embedded in classical music and still always tell the truth.

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Locally the Schickele franchise resides with the Armadillo Quartet -- Barry Socher, Steve Scharf, Raymond Tischer and Armen Ksajikian -- who perform concerts of his music at least once a year and are the dedicatees of several of the works. Last week's concert at Zipper drew a large crowd; Schickele officiated, a most welcoming host, and collaborated with Guy Hallman on a couple of piano duets. Most of the music resembled most of the rest of the music, which nobody seemed to mind. The new Fifth String Quartet was subtitled "A Year in the Country," and that was exactly what it sounded like.

The oldest music at Esa-Pekka Salonen's Philharmonic concert was also the least conservative: Haydn's Symphony No. 8, the last of his "Morning, Noon and Evening" trilogy, astounding for the many ways the still-neophyte composer kicked apart the musical customs of his time. There were musical phrases of unequal length in asymmetric groupings, sudden rhythmic shifts and unexpected harmonic break-ins, a solo for double bass (!) midway in the minuet, lots of blooie-blooie for the horns. It's easy to guess what in this marvelously tricky music attracts Salonen, both as composer and as conductor; he leads it well, with all repeats observed and the orchestra pared down to proper size.

A great program all told, in fact. Paul Groves -- the superb Tom Rakewell in the 1996 Salonen/Peter Sellars The Rake's Progress in Paris -- sang the Britten with fine regard for words and word-colors; Jerry Folsom's horn -- including the stipulated "natural" second horn with its inevitable woodnotes wild for the opening and close -- hit well below the allowable number of blobs on the first night, and came even closer to sublimity on the second. The mingling of words and music in this piece,
set into the star-studded halo of the string
orchestra, is sheer magic. Even if Britten
hadn't also composed A Midsummer Night's Dream, this Serenade could stand in its place. I envy anyone hearing it for the first time.

At the end came the hourlong torso of Mozart's unfinished C-minor Mass, wisely delivered without the misguided attempts some have made to fill in missing sections from other Mozart works. Conservative and liberal mingle; Mozart had not yet gone far in his studies of Bach's contrapuntal mastery, and there are fugal passages in an old-fashioned baroque style that do tend to lumber. (They might not have done so with half the choral forces employed here, and with cleaner diction than the Master Chorale tends to muster.) Of the vocal soloists, Janice Chandler (replacing the ailing Barbara Bonney) sang her "Et incarnatus" as angels might; Suzanne Mentzer's brutalized "Laudamus te" could have shattered windows in South Pasadena; Groves and Nathan Berg dispatched their brief duties commendably. There is greatness in the work, if sporadic: the grinding, clenching chromaticism of the "Qui tollis," the warm sunshine of the "Benedictus" and the triumphant C-major trumpeting of the final "Osanna." Salonen hasn't given us much Mozart; this was a step forward, passionate and immensely expressive.

LAST WEEK'S "GREEN UMBRELLA" BEGAN and ended rambunctious, deliciously so: Silvestre Revueltas' Ocho por Radio at the start, John Adams' Chamber Symphony -- inevitably a letdown after the previous week's triumph but still a hoot -- at the end. Midway came Asia-inspired works that illuminated the joys and the dangers of the musical multiplex: Bill Kraft's garrulous but endearing Encounters XI: The Demise of Suriyodhaya for Carolyn Hove's English horn and Raynor Carroll's vast and gorgeous array of gongs and gadgetry; Gerald Levinson's indescribably awful Time and the Bell . . . for Gloria Cheng-Cochran's piano and the ensemble under Salonen. I looked up what I had written in January 1995 when Simon Rattle and the Philharmonic imposed Levinson's Second Symphony upon us: "turgid, derivative, agonizingly overwritten, aimless." I asked then, and I ask again: Why?

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