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A Flight of Fantasy, Grounded 

Wednesday, Apr 28 1999
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Photo by Susesch BayatCHARLES LINDBERGH'S SOLO FLIGHT across the Atlantic in May 1927 sent the world into a tizzy of adoration. It spawned parades, popular songs, Lucky Lindy Hair Tonic and -- not the least -- a strange but endearing cantata by Kurt Weill, to a text by Bertolt Brecht. That work, burdened with its bifurcated title Der Lindberghflug-Ozeanflug, had its first-ever local performance two weeks ago, a one-shot production under Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department auspices at San Pedro's gloriously goofy Art Deco Warner Grand Theater. The evening had its share of mismatches, but at least the music and the venue seemed made for each other.

Curious artwork, curious history. If aviation's vast horizons seized the public's imagination at the time, so did the even broader potential of the era's other great invention, radio. By January 1929, Brecht had completed the text for a grandiose word salad around Lindbergh's achievement, including words to be sung by Fog, by the City of New York saluting the Lone Eagle overhead, by the plane's engine. (Such hifalutin fantasies were apparently embedded in the Germanic soul at the time -- as witness the singing glacier in Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf and the poetry-shrouded mountains in Leni Riefenstahl's early films.) The work was planned for presentation over German radio, with music jointly composed by Weill and Paul Hindemith; Hermann Scherchen conducted a broadcast, some of which survives on a recording once available on Capriccio. After a so-so initial reception, Hindemith withdrew his music; Weill completed the work himself, now announcing it as a "Cantata for Schools." Otto Klemperer led the premiere of the revised score, and Leopold Stokowski gave it its first American hearing -- also broadcast -- in 1931, in an English translation by George Antheil. In 1950, disturbed by Lindbergh's political activities in his later years, Brecht revised the text, deleting all mention of the pilot by name and adding an anti-Lindbergh spoken prologue, renaming the work Ozeanflug. In San Pedro the prologue was performed, but the name of Lindbergh still appeared on the projected titles and may, for that matter, have also been sung by the chorus; sharper ears than mine would have had to determine the latter point.

None of this would merit detailing except that a) Weill's music is wonderful, full of the slash and tension of his Mahagonny score, well worth reviving, and b) the local presentation, which could have offered much, was badly botched. A French vocal ensemble called Soli-Tutti -- based, or so the press release raved, close to the very airport where Lindbergh landed -- which on its own before intermission had sung Poulenc and Ligeti songs admirably, turned Brecht's German words into Middle High Urdu. Aside from a clumsy printed synopsis, there was no clue as to text or action. Wandering spotlights plus a light leak from the brightly lit theater lobby added an overlay of visual confusion. Eventually, the stage was so crowded with wayward choristers that conductor Arthur B. Rubinstein, who led his Symphony of the Glen in what might have been a creditable performance, had no way to signal the music's end.

I hear that the Cultural Affairs Department has grand plans for the Warner Grand, and that the acoustics are splendid for orchestral concerts. On the first point I am hopeful; on the second I am so far unconvinced. Surely we need excellent new venues widely scattered, even as the Ambassador Auditorium remains dark. But nothing could kill the whole concept of cultural expansion faster than throwing the doors open to the kind of patched-together, grossly underrehearsed, vaguely defined presentation I endured at the Warner Grand a few days ago.

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LEONARD STEIN HAD TURNED PAGES FOR Frances Mullen at one of the first "Evenings on the Roof" concerts, on Peter Yates' roof, in 1939. Marni Nixon had performed songs of Charles Ives at a "Roof" concert in 1949. The "Roof" concerts became the Monday Evening Concerts; Leonard became -- well, Leonard Stein; Marni recorded Webern and Stravinsky with Monday Evening Concert personnel, and was Audrey Hepburn's voice in "The Rain in Spain." It was fitting, and also glorious, to have them back at the County Museum doing Ives songs at the first of three concerts celebrating the 60th anniversary of a series that, under either of its two names, has been one of the most distinguished and longest-lasting explorations into unfamiliar and rewarding music anywhere in the world.

Not everything on the two (of three) concerts I heard was up to that performance or musical level, but that's always the chance you take when you explore. Two early works by eventual hell-raisers -- Pierre Boulez's 1946 Sonatine for Flute and Piano and Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1959 Refrain -- didn't seem to have much to say these days. Schoenberg's Violin Phantasy and the Bartók Contrasts were somewhat defused by an excess of care from violinist Maiko Kawabata. At the final concert, Gerhard Samuel's dust-dry 1998 cantata Hyacinth From Apollo offered little nostalgic value and even less music. But at that concert David Sherr played two of Luciano Berio's Sequenze and Samuel let loose the luminous flames of Anton Webern's 1928 Symphony -- save for the Ives, the oldest music on the three programs; suddenly you could realize that the cause for celebration was not merely a venerable concert series, but music itself.

OBITER DICTA: FOR ME THE GREAT MOment in Martha Argerich's steaming trajectory through Chopin's E-minor Piano Concerto was her first entry: the impatience, violently voiced, after the agonizingly long and crudely orchestrated preamble (its length unmitigated by Emmanuel Krivine's woolly reading with the Philharmonic on the first night). Yes, the nocturnal slow movement passed by on moonbeams; yes, the finale danced enchantingly. But was it really worth the 18-year wait for this one-of-a-kind musician to impose upon us so mealy-mouthed an excuse for a concerto while the masterworks languish for her touch?

I had never paid much attention to Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet score, regarding it as inferior to his Romeo and Juliet. (But then, what isn't?) At the Ahmanson, performed by an undersize orchestra but crowned with the captivating originality of Matthew Bourne's reworking of the old legend, it is magically transformed: music full of enchanting flicker, its great waltz an amazing study of dark shadows against daylight. Any number of ballets make an insignificant score tolerable through great dancing (e.g., Giselle); this new Cinderella makes an insignificant score significant, and that's a lot harder.

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