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Grand Delusion 

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
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Around me at the Music Center, the crowd stomped and cheered. The forces onstage had aimed a dazzling rocket into their midst, and the sparks flew. Whatever the more substantial virtues (if any) of the composer Rodion Shchedrin, whose Fifth Piano Concerto got its first-ever performance at last week‘s Philharmonic all-Russian bash, or the pianist Olli Mustonen, the work’s dedicatee and soloist, they proved themselves masters beyond challenge in the art of crowd zapping. Think back to the concerto‘s final movement: 10 or so minutes of nonstop perpetuum mobile, jillions upon jillions of notes zooming dizzily up and down the keyboard, the pianist’s hands and arms weaving to and fro as if fashioning a batch of invisible taffy in midair; could anyone resist participating in the leaps and the whoops that greeted the perpetrators of this glittering slab of ear- and eye candy? What stunning reassurance was doled out that night!: that music by a living composer -- the fearsome commodity -- could uncoil its dreaded measures but still leave its hearers unscarred, even exhilarated, at the end.

Those familiar with Shchedrin‘s reputation as a composer of relatively unpresumptuous stature beside the musical giants of today’s Russia -- not to mention the past masters Borodin and Stravinsky, splendidly conducted that night by Esa-Pekka Salonen as compatriot companions -- should not, of course, have entertained qualms about this new work. Those who have raised an eyebrow (let‘s say) or downright deplored (more to the point) the overwrought musical and visual antics of Olli Mustonen on his previous visits might have readily surmised that this pianist and this composer were put on Earth to make music with each other. The new concerto is an occasionally appealing bag of tricks, many of them familiar but some worth repeating. The opening is Prokofiev redux, the thudding tread of the Love for Three Oranges music or the Second Piano Concerto, but nowhere the lyric elegance of, say, the violin concertos or the ballets. The slow movement struck me on first hearing as a turgid, gray wash; nothing in a later perusal of the score changed that estimate. But that finale -- oh boy! There is music in the grand tradition of audience seduction, empty but masterful virtuosic rhetoric; it leaves you no time to catch a breath, or to realize the emptiness of it all. Being of a certain age, I let my mind wander back to a Friday afternoon at Boston’s Symphony Hall -- 1943, wasn‘t it? -- when a then-unknown young pianist named William Kapell stormed the barricades with a then-unknown piano concerto by a certain Khachaturian and, with music of comparable glitter and deficiency of brainpower, wrung cheers from that grandmotherly audience. The Messrs. Shchedrin and Mustonen delivered their massage to the same nerve endings.

From the Philharmonic’s new score I expected no more; from Laurie Anderson‘s night at UCLA’s Royce Hall I expected much more and was let down. I cannot dispute her life mission, which has always been to explain America to itself in selected bits and pieces, chosen and grouped with genuine wit and love and set to music of wonderful, broad fantasy. She has attempted exactly that in her Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, brought it off on a stage drenched in sea-swept imagery, but weakened its impact in music that is, for her endearing talent, a backward step. Just the beginning, a projected ocean backdrop where birds fly toward one another, then collide and disappear into the seam between the screens, is pure Melville, and that spell holds through 90-plus intermissionless minutes. But the songs ruin things; they are not the dark, cynical lyrics of the great early stage works, but a long list of short, pretty pop tunes, a musical gloss that actually conflicts with the terrific visuals of her piece. Last year at Royce, in a simpler but more profound solo work called The Speed of Darkness, Anderson redefined the role of the contemporary artist as that of “content provider.” To those who love her work, her new piece casts her as a provider of discontent.

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I was repulsed by my first hearing of Meredith Monk in the 1970s, astonished by the sheer chutzpah of her tuneless gibberish, baffled by the outpourings of adoration in the capacity crowd around me. Since then she has waxed even mightier, composed operas, transfixed audiences worldwide. In the forlorn belief that I must be missing something, I keep going to hear her. Her concert at the Getty Center, given -- for God‘s sake -- as a part of the World Festival of (!) Sacred Music, again drew the usual pilgrimage, who provided the usual measure of adulation. I hated every minute. Someone please tell me what I’m missing.

At Glendale‘s Alex Theater, however, I heard some truly stunning singing from another musician, in her local debut: Pamela Helen Stephen, performing one of Benjamin Britten’s last works, the cantata Phaedra, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under guest conductor Richard Hickox (who just happens to be the singer‘s husband). This is strong, eloquent music; the text, from Racine’s drama translated by Robert Lowell, demands no less: to illuminate the tragic heroine‘s final rumination on her fate before her suicide. Janet Baker, who inspired the work, sang it here in the 1980s under Carlo Maria Giulini; Stephen’s impassioned, beautifully colored performance challenged those memories. She sings the Maddalena in the Los Angeles Opera‘s Rigoletto next March, again with Hickox conducting, a role far too small for the artist I heard at this concert.

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