In the Beginning 

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002

As is proper, we start a new year with Genesis. In 1943 the notion befell a modestly endowed but immodestly ambitious Hollywood music man, Nathaniel Shilkret (born Schuldkraut, uncle of the late Wayne), to turn nothing less than the Book of Genesis into music worthy of its words. He enlisted six European composers then refugees in California -- Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud and Ernst Toch -- added his own name to the list with becoming modesty, and set them all to creating a seven-movement Genesis Suite, which was duly performed and issued on six 78-rpm discs on the Artist label. The last thing anyone could have dreamed of would be to have this curious if naive venture in self-aggrandizement turn up again on discs.

Yet there it is on a new Angel CD, the old performance conducted by Werner Janssen, with a Hollywood pickup orchestra that raises the concept of sloppy to expressive heights, with the verses intoned by the trombone-voiced Edward Arnold. The music is as bad as you might imagine, with Stravinsky handing off a few pages of Firebird discards, Tansman, Shilkret and Toch rekindling the opening-credits style that kept them fed in their Hollywood years, Milhaud‘s “Cain & Abel” section appallingly unable. Schoenberg, however, apparently incapable of creating authentic trash, sent along a taut, beautifully organized canonic piece -- for the section titled “The Earth was without form . . .” (!) The whole suite lasts nearly 50 minutes without form or reason, yet it belongs among the documents of bygone California culture now being trotted out for local delectation -- or, in some cases, embarrassment.

Further notes on a lingering death: Billboard’s latest “top classical” chart lists three Bocellis and two Yo-Yos among its first 10, with nary a Beethoven symphony or anything else of comparable substance. (In fairness, I should note that Murray Perahia‘s Goldberg Variations comes in as No. 11.) If a blind tenor can make it that big, you’d think there‘d be room for a deaf composer; obviously Ludwig’s greatest handicap was the failure of impulse in his management.

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More dire are the rumors from the mysterious East, that The New York Times may be entering into a dumbing-down policy in its serious-music coverage. Arts and Leisure editor John Rockwell, who brought to the paper a lively ecumenical view -- that music‘s many faces were equally deserving of coverage, that music in lofts and clubs was as worthy of notice as Lincoln Center -- has left (“jumped before he was pushed,” says one trustworthy source). The talk at the paper is that “elitism” is on the way out, pop culture is on the rise, and that other major papers around the country are taking heed. I look into the mirror these days and see an avatar of a dying breed, a dinosaur. Mark Swed, Dick Dyer, Alex Ross, yrs trly: interesting, how many surviving music critics are four-letter words.

Ned Rorem endures. Composers try to write; writers sometimes try to compose; what’s special in Rorem‘s case is the mingled lights his command of one art sheds upon the other. On a recent Naxos release, Carole Farley sings, and wonderfully, an hour’s worth of Rorem songs, 32 settings of texts mostly American -- Whitman, Stein, Frost, Roethke, et al. -- and what first comes across is the absolute grace in the way music and words curl around one another. (Rorem‘s presence at the piano is a further enhancement.) Listen, and then pick up A Ned Rorem Reader (Yale University Press), a culling -- skillfully chosen by J.D. McClatchy -- from writings over half a century.

What amazes here, and warms the heart and raises the hackles, is the further light these essays, diary entries and interview snippets cast on a composer endowed with the insights to winnow out the music in those poems. The adolescent loner in Chicago’s cruising parks and New York gay baths, the slowly ripening Adonis handed around the Parisian salons, the emerging wisdom of the mature musician -- with a 1977 essay on Debussy‘s Pelleas et Melisande that always makes me weep -- you meet these in the book, and meet them in the music as well. Rorem’s previous books contain some of what‘s here, but this small, artful epitome, the right size for air travel or bed, goes with you and stays with you.

Inevitably, there must be start-of-the-year lists. Memorable 2001 events: Handel’s Giulio Cesare in the last L.A. Opera season planned by the late Peter Hemmings, to ensure continued fond memories of his leadership; Wagner‘s Lohengrin in the new regime’s first flight, to mend in one glorious outing many previous inadequacies. The Philharmonic‘s Stravinsky and Schoenberg celebrations, not only for the Music Center concerts, but for the ancillary events all over town, including, above all, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s sizzling Green Umbrella performances of Stravinsky‘s Octet and Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. Marino Formenti‘s two sets of new-piano-music concerts: at LACMA in February and at Eclectic Orange in October, with the Jean Barraque Sonata again receiving the jaw-dropping performance it had the year before. Exquisite French Christmas liturgy, at Irvine and Royce Hall, elegantly produced by Paris’ Les Arts Florissants. Composer Osvaldo Golijov, at Ojai last summer, at the Philharmonic in the fall and, on disc (Hanssler Classic), in the exhilarating Passion According to St. Mark -- proving the possibility of re-expressing the Bach spirit without the process of diminution favored in other circles (e.g., the misguided but inexplicably popular Morimur, also recently on the charts).

Significant recordings: John Adams‘ El Niño on Nonesuch, a retelling of the Nativity story even better without the Peter Sellars visuals that cluttered the live performances; Salonen’s own music on Sony, with his LA Variations more skillful and witty on each rehearing; Ernst Krenek‘s Karl V on MDG-Gold, the first complete recording of the other great atonal opera (alongside Moses und Aron and Lulu).

Insignificant recordings: The rash -- by now an epidemic -- of extraordinary no-talents, doe-eyed and doughy-voiced, elevated with virtuosic press-agentry into some kind of cloud-cuckoo musical prestige. Bocelli began it, Church and Watson moved it upward and onward. The latest arrival -- via full-page ads, a Web site, PR like the Voice in the Wilderness -- goes by the name of Josh Groban, age 20, with a high C indistinguishable from the mating call of a rusty file. Yet, at a visit to a local record shop last week, I witnessed not one but three dowagers of assorted ages pawing through the racks with manic esurience in search of aforementioned Grobiana. The bleat goes on.

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