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One Out of Six 

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Photo by Dimo SafariDURING INTERMISSION AT LAST THURSDAY'S Philharmonic concert, the talk in my corner was about long-lost or neglected composers. The concert had begun with Arthur Honegger's Symphonie Liturgique, which the orchestra had last played in 1949. It was followed this time by Franz Liszt's First Piano Concerto, but all the poster-color and glitz (including soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's snazzy red socks) didn't erase the memory of the Honegger -- which, by the way, was accorded a decently respectful if indecently loud performance by the orchestra under guest-conductor Antonio Pappano.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there seemed to be a lot more Honegger in the air a few years ago. Daniel Lewis and the Pasadena Symphony gave a splendid performance of his oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake in the early 1980s, but the story at the time was that orchestra board members objected to all that modern stuff. Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Münch played his music in Boston; so did Pierre Monteux in San Francisco. These days not many people argue his cause. In Berkeley in my time there was actually a Honegger Society, although I remember that its meetings were more devoted to concocting imprecations against Beethoven than upgrading Honegger. There was a recording on imported 78s of his big choral number The Dance of the Dead, which knocked everybody's socks off; it had Jean-Louis Barrault howling passages from Ezekiel and the chorus screaming the "Dies Irae" chant. I sold dozens of copies at my record store, and wish I had kept one. (There was a newer recording, on Erato, now discontinued, but it was pretty tame by comparison.)

The Liturgique, which dates from 1946, is an extraordinary work, but it's easier to say what it isn't than exactly what it is. Its orchestration leans to deep horns and ecstatic trumpets, but without the vulgarity of the César Franck disciples of the previous generation. Flights of angels pass close overhead, especially in the serene, sublime slow movement, but they don't fly through the vapors stirred up in Messiaen's liturgical ecstasies. Above all, you could never mistake this or anything else by Honegger as akin to the glib, easy charm of his fellow members of "Les Six." He seems to have been the philosopher, the deep thinker of the group. He left a substantial musical legacy, some of it rather fun (like his Pacific 231, a tone-painting of a locomotive), some of it a gorgeous mix of profundity and theatricality (like the aforementioned choral pieces, a setting for a Jean Cocteau reworking of Antigone, and the Liturgique that inspired these thoughts). Along with a few other composers of our time badly in need of present-day champions -- Luigi Dallapiccola, say, or Karl Amadeus Hartmann, or the early, pre-Mathis der Maler Hindemith -- he certainly doesn't deserve his current limbo. Overall, last week's Philharmonic concert wasn't great; Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony was made into hash. Honegger made the night important.

THE PITTSBURGH SYMPHONY CAME TO TOWN with its new conductor, Mariss Jansons, and with Mahler -- the 70 minutes of coitus interruptus that constitutes the Fifth Symphony. The work is surprisingly well-liked; the listing in Schwann is longer than for any other of the Mahler symphonies, even the good ones. I can't tell a good performance of this work from a bad, except for the separately famous Adagietto, recordings of which range from seven minutes (Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg, both educated at Mahler's knee) to 14 (Georg Solti). I fought off sleep long enough to recognize Jansons' performance as somewhere in the middle. The orchestra sounded impressively loud, but -- as usual with touring orchestras in unfamiliar halls -- the brass badly outshouted everybody else all night, even in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, also on the program.

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The house was sold out, and the crowd yelled itself hoarse at the end. You have to hand it to Mahler; he knew how to orchestrate an audience better than any other 10 composers you could name. But the crowd had also yelled itself hoarse at the end of Helen Huang's pallid, tinkly version of the concerto. Is the spectacle of a cute 16-year-old braving the tightrope across Big Bad Beethoven all it takes to bring an audience to its feet these days? And why does an orchestra, even the especially good one that the Pittsburgh now seems to be, travel with such uninspiring luggage? Are there no Pittsburgh composers worth highlighting? No specialties that define Jansons' musical outlooks?

Oh, well.

THERE ARE NEARLY TWICE AS MANY LISTings in Schwann for Vivaldi's The Four Seasons as for Mahler's Fifth, which I take as proof of civilization's chance for survival. (In 1940, when I started collecting, there were no recordings of either work.) Tafelmusik, the excellent Toronto-based ensemble that performs Vivaldi delectably (and also Haydn), played to a near-capacity house (Royce, this time) not long ago and was properly cheered. Music director Jeanne Lamon's flexible, willful Vivaldi is not everyone's. She does tend to stress the music's astonishing panorama of mood and tempo changes; you can almost smell fresh paint on Vivaldi's pastoral landscape. A couple of the violinists seemed to be having a bad bow night, only enough to prove their humanness; Vivaldi, too, survived.

Even without visiting ensembles, the local fund of early music seems to thrive; one could hear some kind of music-making almost every night without once descending to Mahler. I've missed most of Greg Maldonado's programs with his Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra this season but promise to make up soon. I've gotten to our other local treasure, Michael Eagan's Musica Angelica, more often, most recently in a vocal program at Santa Monica's First Presbyterian Church that included some amazing -- there's no other word for it -- music by Barbara Strozzi, singer and composer of 17th-century Venice.

"I burn with silent fire," sings the heroine of one of Strozzi's long, passionate outcries. The music soars, dips; on "rivers of tears" the vocal line slithers down through chromatic harmonies that raise goose bumps; "tongues that cannot speak" speak in a monotone of repeated notes. One singer -- the splendid Samela Aird Beasom -- with a couple of plucked instruments to maintain the runway for these flights of fancy: The simplest of music creates the most profound, disturbing emotion. Opera was invented in Strozzi's time; the power of music like this makes you feel present at the creation.

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