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All-American 

Wednesday, Nov 22 2000
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By accident or design, the past few days‘ musical offerings added up to an impressive sweep through a varied American music -- a festival in everything but name. Famous antagonists -- Aaron Copland and John Cage, say -- came onto programs within hissing distance of one another. Henry Cowell and Terry Riley held hands across the decades. A nation that could spawn In C and A Lincoln Portrait has to command respect.

There was Copland aplenty around the actual date (November 14) of his centennial, and a Pacific Symphony concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center suggested that there were entries still to be discovered in the legacy of this greatly admired American icon. One of these was the score to a forgotten (and forgettable) 1939 film, produced for the New York World’s Fair, called The City -- one of those better-life-is-yet-to-come documentaries indigenous to world‘s fairs -- in which a bloviating narration went tsk-tsk across scenes of urban blight and foretold a glowing future with grassy expanses and geometrically perfect housing clusters resembling nothing so much as present-day Irvine. At Costa Mesa the original track was suppressed, the narration done live (by Dakin Matthews, an expert bloviator), and the score delivered in excellent sync by Carl St. Clair and the orchestra. I don’t see a shred of this music listed in Schwann, but it is a rich, strong half-hour of prime Copland, with a nice sardonic undertone that suggests that Copland, if obliged to live in an Irvine tract, would have spent time longing for the old days in the Brooklyn slums.

The Pacific Symphony program also had the grand old William Warfield to deliver the words of the Lincoln Portrait, reminder of a time when presidential eloquence had a heartfelt throb that might shame any current practitioner, with Copland‘s music familiar but no less stirring for that. Two nights later the Long Beach Symphony took on the Third Symphony, Copland’s most expansive nonvocal work, lumpy at times -- which the wise and bouncy performance under David Loebel did not completely hide -- but truly grandiose in its final pages. Loebel is one of this year‘s roster of hopeful conductors ”auditioning“ for the Long Beach podium: a worthy contender and, by the way, a superb pre-concert speaker. This program also included the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, manfully grappled with by the young Howard Zhang but a work long overdue at the dumpster.

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Once again, as a year ago, the smartly conceived Eclectic Orange program included one of the hard-to-define, almost-operatic, close-to-magnificent stage works of near genius Mikel Rouse. Failing Kansas is actually the first of the trilogy of multimedia works of which Dennis Cleveland, heard here last season, is the second. This time Rouse was alone in the enveloping black box of Costa Mesa’s Founders Hall. On the screen was Cliff Baldwin‘s collage of images: themes of travel, fugitives on the lam, crime and punishment somehow interwoven to relate to Truman Capote’s ”nonfiction novel“ In Cold Blood. Out front Rouse sang, spoke, played his harmonica, all in near darkness; a further collage of voices moved in and out. Somehow, you grasped the shape of a tormented drama unfolding with irresistible force. Leaving, you passed the Performing Arts Center‘s main hall, where Mozart’s Magic Flute held the stage -- delightfully, I‘m told. That work, too, demands a certain suspension of disbelief. Both works bring together sight, sound, music and words, and arrive onto an artistic level far beyond any of its parts.

Meanwhile, back up north, the County Museum’s Monday Evening series was made further irresistible by a visit from Steven Schick‘s UC San Diego percussion ensemble that calls itself red fish blue fish and can whale the daylights out of a stageful of noisemaking apparatus like you never heard. They brought an ancestral program: Henry Cowell’s amazing Ostinato Pianissimo of 1934, from whose steady, soft tick-tock dozens of later composers gleaned sustenance; the first of John Cage‘s ”Construction“ pieces, from five years later, deriving music out of thunder sheets, brake drums and the like; and a Lou Harrison concerto from 1959, in which a very European-sounding violin solo (played by Janos Negyesy as if in a Budapest cafe) rides above a very Indonesian-sounding percussion ensemble. At the end there came Terry Riley’s In C of 1964 -- progenitor of and, somehow, participant in everything in music since its time. The performance ran 55 minutes, beautifully paced and -- in the way changes of timbre seemed to highlight major divisions -- unusually successful in projecting a sense of overall structure. I heard the work this time, as I haven‘t always, more as a masterpiece than as merely a trick.

At UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall (as it is once again known, after the school‘s wacko renaming excursion), Boston’s excellent young Borromeo String Quartet brought in Steve Mackey‘s Ars Moriendi, nine connected movements dealing in an abstract sense with dying, brought into being by Mackey’s own experience at his dying father‘s bedside. Such circumstances should disarm criticism, I suppose, but cannot in this case. Mackey’s 25-minute work, with all its evocative movement titles and with all the benevolence that may have actually guided his pen, is horrendously, offensively dull. So dull it was, in fact, that the murk and turgidity of the ensuing work, Brahms‘ F-minor Piano Quintet, with Christopher O’Riley as the fifth wheel, seemed like a Maypole dance by contrast.

Then there was Peter Schickele‘s new Cello Concerto, bearing the subtitle ”In Memoriam FDR“ and commissioned by the New Heritage Music Foundation, whose aim is to create a repertory of works in the spirit of major American figures or events. Paul Tobias, the foundation’s head and an excellent cellist, was the soloist; Jorge Mester, a longtime collaborator under both the P.D.Q. Bach and Schickele-the-Serious hats, conducted his excellent Pasadena Symphony. Roosevelt himself is a minor player in the work, which is probably just as well, since ”Home on the Range“ was reported to be his favorite tune. Instead, Schickele has created an audible counterpart of a Thomas Hart Benton mural, a brightly colored collage of sounds and tunes from the Roosevelt era, ranging as far afield as Richard Rodgers‘ ”Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered“ and the mood cut short with a final funeral march. Academic and determinedly middle-road, Schickele’s serious music is out to please and does so nicely. Those who deplore the recent downgrading of his activities under his other hat can take solace in the news Schickele slipped to me at lunch that the illustrious P.D.Q. has composed a string quartet, whose world premiere is imminent. Watch the skies.

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