Five Not-So-Easy Pieces | A Lot of Night Music | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Five Not-So-Easy Pieces 

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
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The Philharmonic‘s presentation around Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra was a distinguished event worthy of the music -- as the treatment accorded the Piano Concerto three weeks before had not been. Bold to the point of insolence, gorgeously color-splashed, this suite from 1909 (revised, but not diminished in the 1949 revision) had been substituted for the Violin Concerto, which tilts the Schoenberg content in the current celebration excessively toward the non-serial and formative works. Even so, the Five Pieces is wonderful music too seldom performed -- and even less often performed as well as it was last week. The talk this time was also serious and stimulating. In the pre-concert discussion, former pupils Natalie Limonick and Leonard Stein reminisced about Schoenberg‘s classroom and private teaching. Onstage, Esa-Pekka Salonen took us through the music itself, genially and intelligently, with the orchestra demonstrating points along the way. Left to his own devices, Salonen handles this kind of chalk talk very well. (At a sold-out gathering at LACMA the night before, with Salonen and The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, the talk was less enlightened, because a pretentious and timid interlocutor seemed either afraid or unwilling to guide the conversation toward actual musical matters.) Mozart filled out the program -- a rowdy but exhilarating “Jupiter” Symphony at the end, and the early G-major Violin Concerto in a larger-than-life reading by Viktoria Mullova (with a couple of real nut-case cadenzas inserted here and there).

I get the feeling that Salonen, in his heart of hearts, doesn‘t really care for Schoenberg’s music all that much, early works or late. Something about his own music, the intensity of its outreach and the exuberance of its fantasy, resounds from a different planet. (And by the way, the Sony disc that includes his fabulous L.A. Variations is now out, and who knows for how long?) All the more credit, then, for the finely motivated, richly hued reading Salonen gave of the Five Pieces, and for the deep intelligence in his explanation of the music. It will be even more interesting to hear his take in the upcoming complete survey of Shostakovich, whose music he has publicly dissed more than once.

You gotta do these things sometimes: Like a penitent in a hair shirt, I betook myself a couple of weeks earlier to the Philharmonic‘s Rachmaninoff-Sibelius program, sure that I would hate every moment but still curious as to why. Steven Stucky’s 1988 Son et Lumiere, which began the program, helped explain; it was the only music that night that took any cognizance of a symphony orchestra‘s power to create varied, arresting sounds. Otherwise there was the murky orchestral blanket around Leif Ove Andsnes’ clattering piano in Rach 3 and the agonizing buzz-buzz of Sibelius‘ Second Symphony, dispelled only by the pompous oratory of the anthem-wannabe stuff at the end.

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After its sensational opening weeks, which offered much and promised even more, the local opera company returned to the old business-as-usual. First seen in February 1999 (and not exactly beloved then), its creaky, quirky La Traviata only sporadically honors the sad sorrowings of Verdi’s near-perfect musical drama. Again there‘s the willful, gimmick-ridden staging of Marta Domingo, with principal singers cavorting athletically on Giovanni Agostinucci’s stifling, resolutely retro set designs that have less to do with romantic operatic tragedy than with tickling the folks out front. From the podium there is the decent competence of Placido Domingo‘s leadership, but one misses the elegant lyrical impulse he had once brought to this opera -- and probably still can -- as its leading tenor.

Instead there is the squally, unfocused Alfredo of Rolando Villazon, whose stage manner furthermore constitutes a virtual parody of a scenery-chewing superstar of the old school. Ana Maria Martinez is the Violetta, her voice nicely colored by the role’s tragic overtones, but undercut by a tendency to push sustained notes toward sharpness. As the burly, harsh-voiced Papa Germont, Jorge Lagunes wields his cane like a drum major‘s baton, poised at any moment to thrash Violetta senseless.

To the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts -- a haven, apparently, for touring opera companies with oversize ambitions (remember that Aida?) -- came the St. Petersburg Opera, with a repertory that bore some resemblance to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Mussorgsky‘s Boris Godunov. Both operas are relative rarities hereabouts, although Opera Pacific lists an Onegin for next February. The Boris, furthermore, was performed in the “first author’s edition,” minus the clutter of “improvements” -- including the Polish Scene -- that less adventurous souls advised Mussorgsky to add later on. (The Cerritos program book, however, contained the synopsis for the later version.)

The St. Petersburg company struggles for recognition in the shadow of the neighboring Kirov; Yuri Alexandrov, its director, has worked at both houses. He brought his troupe here with a couple of dribs of rudimentary scenery, a few buckets of plastic snowflakes and a 40-member orchestra mostly young, for a tour as far east as Phoenix. In the rather slapdash Onegin, I was taken by Olga Kovaleva‘s lithe, winsome Tatyana; her Onegin, Dimitry Taneev, looked and sounded like Pushkin’s and Tchaikovsky‘s romantic hero the way I look and sound like Luciano Pavarotti. The Boris Godunov the next day was far better -- again with not much stuff onstage but with a lusty, folkish edge to both sight and sound that went well with the rough edges of Mussorgsky’s pristine score. The Boris himself, Edem Umerov, sang the role at both afternoon and evening performances, with admirable clarity if no particular eloquence. Best of all was the imposing, deep-throated Elena Eremeeva, who sang small roles in both operas in the great Russian mezzo-soprano tradition and got the biggest ovation both nights.

At LACMA‘s first Monday Evening Concert, our wondrously off-the-wall EAR Unit did music with film, ending with Jeff Rona’s exceptional new score for that 1928 silent surrealist classic, James Sibley Watson Jr.‘s The Fall of the House of Usher, music that poked with high imagination into the angles and corners of that famous old cult favorite. At Royce Hall a week later, the Philip Glass Ensemble played his music for several short films, draining the air out of the hall with sounds of crushing diatonic sameness, which some people -- present company excluded -- seem to think they can tell from one another. This was the first program in a week of Glass-blown film. I did like the final work, Godfrey Reggio’s Anima Mundi, with its neat-o animal shots, but there was nothing there that Disney‘s Living Desert hadn’t accomplished with square-dancing scorpions in 1953, when Glass was still waiting tables.

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