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Multimedia, 1500 Style 

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
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The concert at the Getty Center two weekends ago, the second of three events this summer tied into museum exhibits, came as close to perfection as any since . . . well, since the last time I saw Michael Eagan’s Musica Angelica in performance there (Handel‘s Acis and Galatea two summers ago). Eagan and his forces were again the stars, and it was one of those nights when you could lose yourself in sensual seduction; you wanted it not to stop, ever -- even if it meant missing the Getty’s last tram.

The tie-in this time was the museum‘s exhibit of illuminated pages from an early Renaissance Book of Hours, honoring the Gualenghi-d’Este, a noble family of rulers and art patrons based in Ferrara. That handsome walled city -- whose inhabitants swear by salama da sugo, a curious dish of boiled salami that you eat with a spoon, a favorite of Lucrezia Borgia -- had become by 1500 a major arts center rivaled only by Florence. Its composers were the greatest masters of their time, Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez. At the Getty the plain-Jane Harold M. Williams Auditorium was made magical with slide projections of the art from the Gualenghi-d‘Este Hours, and with music mostly by those composers, elegantly sung by an eight-member ensemble, supported by a few instruments including Eagan’s lute and a lovely small organ.

Juxtaposing the music and the art of a certain period doesn‘t always work. (What artwork could you add to Beethoven’s ”Eroica“ that could in any way ”explain“ that self-sufficient music? Music, Mirror of the Arts, my book on that subject, is, I‘m happy to report, out of print.) This time it did. The fantasy in those illuminations -- the tiny world of warriors, minstrels, demons and beasties wound around an initial letter in a text, spilling as doodles onto the margins of every page and ”illuminated“ with splotches of gold leaf -- was exactly mirrored in the sinuous contrapuntal lines in a four-part Dufay rondeau, its harmonies on a fascinating cusp between the archaic and the tonal. At the end came the famous ”Hercules“ Mass of Josquin, which shows up in every music-history textbook because of Josquin’s trick of creating a repeating cantus firmus from the vowels of the name of Ferrara‘s Duke Hercules. It was music to float in, half an hour of radiant, devotional beauty.

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Last weekend’s concert, the series‘ finale, attempted a similar tie-in, this time with the Getty’s display of Albrecht Durer‘s exquisite stained-glass designs. That, however, came nowhere close. Lucidarium, a Basel-based early-music group, turned up with a solid program of Reformation-inspired music, both secular and sacred, some of it interestingly intricate -- e.g., three tunes with three texts sung simultaneously -- but with the intricacy of the cuckoo clock rather than the astounding rich detail of Durer’s designs. A tendency toward stiffness, with the tenor of the ensemble conducting the whole group eins, zwei, drei, vier, merely underlined the squareness of the music itself. After an evening of sauerbraten-mit-potatoes, I found myself actually longing for more of that Ferrarese boiled salami.

This seems to be my penitential summer at the Hollywood Bowl, and my hair shirt is beginning to itch: Ein Heldenleben one week, the Rach Three the next. Pianist Lang Lang, despite his rather unpromising name, made some difference in Rachmaninoff‘s murky opus; he’s 17, still a student -- but aren‘t we all? -- and his lollapalooza reading deserved and earned cheers. On the podium, Junichi Hirokami shared the honors. Among the work’s many problems is its thick orchestral kasha; getting the sound of a piano through that ponderous goop needs the strength of a tractor driver no less than the skill of a 20-fingered virtuoso. With all the problems in the Bowl‘s merciless rehearsal restrictions, however, this really sounded more like a performance than a chance meeting. On his own, furthermore, the young Lang delivered a knockout performance of the first-movement cadenza; he had me wanting to listen.

No such favorable auspices were attendant on Andre Watts’ stint at the Bowl two nights before. At the relatively tender age of 54, Watts has already begun to sound depressingly like a pianist over the hill -- this time, and in several recent appearances. One has to wonder: Was he ever any better, and has the cuteness and the dreamy PR of his early years simply worn off? I could not expect profound revelations from Cesar Franck‘s dopey Symphonic Variations or the Liszt Second Concerto, the two works -- similar in form and musical language to the point of redundancy -- that he struggled with that night. I could, however, expect some awareness that all those handfuls of notes have some relation one to another; this, despite some brave prodding from Hirokami’s eloquent baton, was nowhere evident.

I‘ve spoken my piece on Hirokami before, and happily do so again. Nowadays he’s my favorite conductor to watch, with that marvelous left arm that seems to draw the exact lines of the music in midair. Before and after the Watts performances he led the two best-known Strauss tone poems, an eager, intense Don Juan and a Till Eulenspiegel full of high-energy scamper, though both were somewhat clipped in flight on a bad horn night in the orchestra. After the Rachmaninoff was the Tchaikovsky Fifth, with the horn department recovered: a beautifully formed performance, honest if somewhat sober. We need to hear Hirokami in other repertory -- a German classic or two -- to fill in the picture, but so far I think of him as one of the age‘s truly good conductors.

I came to the opening night of Beyond Baroque’s Sound Festival III a stranger in a strange land, but I‘m getting used to that. The content was beyond reproach even when baffling. The space -- filled on this night with the kind of all-knowing, participating, mostly young audience that opera companies and symphony orchestras dream of attracting (or should) -- is one of the most valuable active arts venues in the area. That’s what Ferrara might have been like in 1500.

I wasn‘t quite all-knowing, but Lord knows I tried. Something called the Joe ColleyCrawl Unit was beyond me: a tall guy wrapped around his tableful of gadgetry, sending out audible daggers and bulldozers, never sparing an outward glance at his presumed targets. (Were we even there? Were we needed there? What about music as communication?) Kraig Grady’s retuned mallet instruments wrapped the room in a soft gossamer of indeterminate (and, alas, interminable) almost-harmony. Germany‘s Achim Wollscheid had wired the space with a network of small microphones and speakers, so that every audience move -- words, breathing, perhaps a snore -- got processed and sent around the room: John Cage’s 4‘33” in other words, writ large.

At the end Pauline Oliveros sat with her great zillion-button accordion, drawing out long, oozing chords that transformed the entire space, both as sight and sound, into a kind of breathing, which I could identify -- for the first time, that night -- as music.

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