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A Choir of Angels 

L.A.'s classical music scene

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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In 1979, I laughed out loud at a job offer from Los Angeles. I was at the time music critic at New York magazine, a job that offered both comfort and prominence in the only city in America worth the attention of anyone involved in serious music — or so a few million people believed, myself included. Leave that behind for the gilded beguilements of some outpost in a cultural desert? Ha ha.

A year later I was gainfully employed in Los Angeles, writing about music. In the intervening year I had made a couple of trips west, and learned a thing or two about the state of matters musical here in Southern California. I heard some remarkable musical inventiveness in stopping places along Interstate 5, from CalArts in the north to UC San Diego in the south — electronic stuff opening onto a world new to me, music (by Lou Harrison and many others) that leaned out across the other ocean to shake hands with Indonesia, India and Japan. I heard the rebirth of reverence for the symphonic classics, at Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts under Carlo Maria Giulini. I talked about musical ideals and ambitions with students and young musicians determined to make a name for themselves right here in Los Angeles. I had come out for one year, to help the fledgling New West, a clone of New York — ill-considered, as it transpired — gain a voice on the musical scene; I was to find a qualified writer, turn over the keys to the kingdom, and return to my power base in New York. Something beyond naming led me to a different destiny. Even an accident on Figueroa at the end of my first year here, during which I was pulled unconscious from a burning car, didn’t strike me as a message worth heeding. New West is no longer here, but I am. ç

Twenty years later, I know why. Giulini’s time with the Philharmonic ended too soon, but the memories remained. There was one memorable week in the spring of 1982 when management allowed me to sit in on his rehearsals of Beethoven’s Fifth — the world’s best-known symphony, but one he hadn’t touched in 16 years. At lunch we studied the score together as if its ink was still wet; I discovered what it means to invite music into your soul, a wisdom I still cherish.

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Giulini’s magic gave way to André Previn’s humdrum; the orchestra fell apart. Honcho Ernest Fleischmann pulled it back from the brink, with the help of two exceptional young men he had happened upon in Europe, and another very old. Nobody as youthful in appearance as the curly-topped Simon Rattle or the apple-cheeked, dimpled Esa-Pekka Salonen had any business attempting to galvanize a demoralized, half-asleep orchestra into a reborn ensemble, but those kids did. To cast a further golden thread of wisdom around the reawakened Philharmonic, Fleischmann also brought over the venerable Kurt Sanderling, who conducted Shostakovich with the authority of a one-time friend (which he was) and the Beethoven symphonies with the poetic insights of a direct descendant (which he wasn’t, but no matter). Sanderling no longer visits, but Rattle does, and Salonen is ours. Fleischmann brought them all, and the Philharmonic’s current relevance rests most of all on his broad but weighed-down shoulders — on which the orchestra rode for years. That Fleischmann’s managerial skills have been a hard act to follow registers clearly in the recent news that his successor, Willem
Wijnbergen, who raised a new set of high hopes with his innovative gadgetry in both programming and marketing, has now bowed out after a mere 15 months of trying to walk in the Fleischmann brogans.

There have been losses. In Pasadena, the Ambassador Auditorium was lost to a fiasco of mismanagement within the controlling powers; luridly decked out as it was, it still had the best sound of any local auditorium and, at 1,200-plus seats, the best size. The lustrous sound of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in that hall on one night, and Cecilia Bartoli on another, remain. A smaller loss, no less sad, was the "Chamber Music L.A." series that just snuck away from its home in Little Tokyo and vanished. There was to be a small chamber-music hall in the new Disney Symphony Hall, but it seems to have dropped off the drawing board. Neither Zipper Hall in the new Colburn School downtown, nor the vast and bland spaces of the Japan America Theater and the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, possess that quality of welcoming that can endow the experience of chamber music with the proper glow. New performing-arts centers have sprung up like mushrooms after a storm — in Woodland Hills, Cerritos, Costa Mesa — and the acoustics in these halls give "mush-room" new meaning. Readers of omens predict acoustical excellence in Disney Hall even before the cornerstone is laid.

And there have been gains — huge and turbulent, small and cherishable. Opera in Los Angeles in 1979 consisted of a run in the Music Center by the New York City Opera in something less than pristine condition, the squeezed-together three-week timing inconvenient for both the opera company and the dispossessed Philharmonic. Down the coast, a struggling Long Beach Opera made do with below-standard stars in standard repertory. Seven years later, the city had its own L.A. Opera; Long Beach had cast aside its Triviatas and begun to stick its nose into splendid rarities old and new. Why consider living in New York when a shoestring opera company right here can come up with all three of the surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi, from whose flaming essence the very art of opera was first forged?

Okay, New York has its operas and symphonies; so do Boston, Seattle and, most likely, Podunk. Part of what holds me in Los Angeles’ grip — 20 years after I could just as easily have returned to the real world of Zubin Mehta and Luciano Pavarotti and recommenced paying $20 to park at Lincoln Center — is the serendipity, the way our musical treasures, in many sizes, are scattered all around the jillion square miles that make up this place. The ongoing symphony orchestras in Long Beach, Pasadena, Glendale and Costa Mesa bear witness to the huge population of freelance musicians who earn their big bucks in the studios by day and their ticket to heaven playing symphonies at night. MaryAnn Bonino’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series is a serendipitous masterpiece; I defy any other city on the planet to come up with anything like her wise, resourceful list of stupendous musical entertainments sublimely matched to their surroundings and delivered with the subtext that hope exists for the world after all. On a smaller scale, the five best pianists who reside in this area have formed the consortium called Piano Spheres and play a series of high-adventure concerts (mostly new music, some world premieres) in an intimate, elegant Pasadena church. At least two excellent instrumental ensembles deserve our valuable time with concerts of baroque and early-classical music in church settings: Greg Maldonado’s L.A. Baroque Orchestra and Michael Eagan’s Musica Angelica.

"So what do you find to do out there in the desert?" one or two of my unreconstructed East Coast friends still ask when I pass their way. Funny they should ask. I wish I had enough free time to construct a proper answer, but I don’t.

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