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Scores To Settle 

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
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Sometimes you have to ask yourself: Does the world deserve me, or vice versa?

”My opinion is correct; therefore, your opinion must be wrong“; so -- in so many words -- writes a self-appointed protector of Stravinsky on last week‘s Letters page.

”Natter natter,“ says a man no longer young, seated behind me at last week’s Richard Goode recital: ”Left-hand rhythms, natter, Horowitz, chatter, Rubinstein, clatter“ -- all in the voice of authority clearly aimed at edifying the several rows around us. Later I learn, as I had guessed, that he‘s a pianist not yet recognized.

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At a press conference, a disheveled type pushes toward me. ”I hope you live long enough to take back everything you’ve ever written about Leonard Bernstein,“ he growls, and shoves off before I can answer. If I took back everything, the ratio of yea to nay would probably be exactly what it is now. Some people have selective memories. And I always weep buckets at the end of West Side Story.

Changing my mind, through the discovery of new evidence against a long-held prejudice or simply through a sudden realignment of the gray cells, is one of my favorite exercises, even when -- as recently, alas -- it proves futile. It got me to the Philharmonic‘s final Stravinsky program, the Green Umbrella event at Zipper Hall three weeks ago, despite my previous words of displeasure toward the dry-point music of the composer’s late years. It got me to the full orchestral concert last week, in hopes of re-examining my often-expressed distaste for the sound and substance of Sibelius. Among my fellow Sibeliophobes, after all, the Seventh Symphony holds a place of honor because of its brevity.

Abraham and Isaac was the major novelty on the Stravinsky program, a setting by the octogenarian composer of biblical verses, set to what I still hear as random zigzag lines vaguely related to 12-tone techniques Stravinsky attempted to swallow in his late years. The considerable power this time lay in Sanford Sylvan‘s eloquent delivery, from memory, of the Hebrew text. By far the best of the concert was the Octet from four decades previous; that work is also fashioned out of jagged lines, but they are so ordered that each one becomes a lightning stroke. The performance under Esa-Pekka Salonen, in my admittedly warped opinion, was the best thing in the entire Stravinsky festival.

A Sibeliophile friend up north, with whom I have argued for over half a century, wrote that Salonen’s performance of the Seventh, which he had heard during the Philharmonic‘s recent Bay Area visit, was not to be missed. Maybe so, but in the performance at the Music Center last week, I heard what I always hear in this work: tortured, gesturesome oratory buried down deep inside an orchestration murky and impenetrable. It probably did sound better in the intense, bright acoustics of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall; at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, little came off the stage. When Walt Disney Concert Hall is finished, this is the music they should use for sound check, but I can‘t think of any other reason for performing it.

Music very old and very new: Among recent musical events, two concerts also projected the always-fascinating interaction of sight and sound. Jordi Savall came to Royce Hall with Hesperion XXI, his early-music ensemble (its title newly updated, as befits the new century), in a program from the Sephardic Diaspora, 700 years old plus or minus, in a cultural swath from Spain to the Middle East. A remarkable and most lovable force majeure, this Savall, whom we admire from recordings (the Bach Suites on Astree, the ”Eroica“ on Fontalis), the one-of-a-kind film Tous les Matins du Monde and, better yet, these explorations into a particularly color-drenched region of ancient musical history. Listening to his splendid players in dances, chants, love songs and ecstatic religious outbursts -- most of it improvised or leached out of manuscript fragments -- you can’t help entertaining visions of mosaics and frescoes spangled with glints of gold. In a world blessed with dozens of early-music specialists and ensembles, Savall‘s group has settled into a niche peculiarly -- and wonderfully --its own.

By an interesting coincidence, this Sunday afternoon concert at Royce was followed, a short stroll away, by more ancient Mediterranean music: the players, singers and whirling dervishes of the Damascus-based Al-Kindi Ensemble in a program that seemed to pick up from Hesperion’s music and transport it farther to the east. To a nonbeliever the music bordered on the interminable, the ecstatic whirling somewhat strange in a concert-hall setting but exhilarating nonetheless. Both concerts, by the way, were unnecessarily amplified.

At last week‘s Green Umbrella, Donald Crockett brought the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble and Chamber Choir into a brush with two widely differing recent painting-inspired works: Louis Andriessen’s 1985 Mondrian tribute De Stijl and Morton Feldman‘s 1971 Rothko Chapel. You couldn’t find two works further apart in sound and substance -- Andriessen‘s exuberant incursion into Piet Mondrian’s own mingled passions for geometry and boogie-woogie, Feldman‘s capturing in near silence the deep and poignant mystery of the small building in Houston that houses Rothko’s last work. Memorable, the courage (almost but not entirely rewarded) that would entrust these two killer masterworks to student forces; memorable also the chance to experience them side by side.

There had been good things along the way in Richard Goode‘s well-attended Music Center concert, but his management of the inexorable rise and fall and rise again of the emotion in the concluding Beethoven sonata was by some distance the evening’s highlight. I‘ve already used the word ecstatic twice, but I’ve also never found a better way to describe the final five minutes of this work, Beethoven‘s next-to-last sonata, the A-flat Opus 110. The fugue, its theme about as simple as a cohesive musical idea can be, is halted for a moment by a slow intrusion. It struggles, shakes itself free and resumes its inexorable forward momentum. Higher and higher it climbs, and the harmony intensifies like the slow turning of a screw. Like the aforementioned Bernstein bit, it’s music I can‘t think about without going bananas.

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