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Mixed Blessings 

Wednesday, Nov 20 2002
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It was wise local politics, if less wise music making, for the Master Chorale to deliver the first official (i.e., ticket-selling) concert at the new cathedral. It suggested the outline of a cultural enclave downtown, from the cathedral at the north end to Disney Hall at the south. Now that the map has been drawn, however, the better part of wisdom would be to destroy it.

As a place for music making, the new edifice is something of a disaster: a revelation all the more tragic measured against the high performance level of the inaugural program planned and executed by Grant Gershon and his excellent band of singers -- at least as much of it as could be heard through the susurrus of the ventilating equipment and the harsh, dry acoustics of the space that actually seemed to suck resonance from both singers and organ. My guess is that it never occurred to the designers that there might be a time when a proper concert atmosphere -- i.e., a background of silence -- might be required in that vast space; under normal churchlike circumstances all that mechanical noise could conceivably stand in for the whispers of God and His angels. It was, however, an audible and highly unwelcome presence at this event.

The program was intelligently chosen, further evidence of Gershon’s status as a thinking man‘s musician: small works by Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki and Francis Poulenc, plus just enough post-romantic organ trash to titillate admirers of that stuff and keep the rest of us from throwing up in the aisles. It took no more than a single movement from Leo Sowerby’s Organ Symphony thundered forth by the cathedral‘s own organist Samuel Soria -- slithering, dense, aimless music, marked “fast and sinister” -- to epitomize everything that is hateful about that awful repertory. (Fortunately, there was other music a week later to restore the digestive tract and the soul -- a splendid Historic Sites vocal-cum-organ concert of Renaissance music by Dana Marsh’s new Musica Humana Oxford, with a superior instrument in the more congenial setting of the First Congregational Church.)

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Last week‘s XTET concert at the County Museum sent me out into the streets, deliriously seized in a 68 pulsation from the evening’s final music, wanting it never to leave my head. The music: the last of Luciano Berio‘s Folk Songs, the portfolio of 11 tunes from all over, collected and marvelously rejiggered by the composer for his blithe-spirit wife, the late Cathy Berberian. Something about these small, perfect jewels goes beyond easy description; most of the tunes are familiar (“Black Is the Colour,” two songs from Canteloube’s Auvergne collection, etc.), but Berio‘s new seasonings endow them with magical glints. Cathy recorded these songs, inimitably. She has left us, but her specialness informs whoever else can sing the whole set properly. That includes Daisietta Kim, who is supposed to have retired from singing but who keeps returning to shine special lights with the XTET forces (who, on this occasion, actually numbered XIII).

The group was formed in 1985, out of that pool of freelancers (studios by day, real music at night) that is one of this area’s great strengths. This season they have a three-concert residency at LACMA (next, February 10). Their programming is fearless and serendipitous, which means that there can be clinkers. Two nowhere pieces by Mary Ellen Childs and Christina Viola Oorebeek fell into that category at last week‘s concert; the Berio, and a perky and trick-laden Henry Cowell string quartet, made full amends.

Alan Feinberg, whose spirit is comparably serendipitous, drew a small but responsive audience to his piano recital at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall: a crowd mostly young, who applauded in the right places and nowhere else, and appeared to know why they were there. I could have wished for the entirety of Ives‘ “Concord” Sonata instead of the one movement (“The Alcotts,” set forth with an outpouring of warmth and humor that made you long to join those folks around their blazing home fire), but there was also other Ives to compensate. That was The Celestial Railroad, amazing music that crams into a work for solo piano the hifalutin goings-on of the orchestral works: a grab bag’s worth of found musical objects -- march tunes, folk songs, a ragtime turn or two. (The music actually originated as a movement in the Fourth Symphony, which is usually performed with a couple of extra conductors to keep the events on track; imagine all that boiled down to piano-keyboard size!)

At the start there was Bach, intensely personal yet accurate renderings of some of his most appealingly strange, chromatic meanderings: small works made large (two of the Duetti, usually played on the organ but this time transformed into violent piano drama), and large works (the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue) made even larger. Strangely but successfully interspersed into the Bach group was a set of tiny preludes by the remarkable, undefinable Russian near-genius Galina Ustvolskaya. At the end there was Chopin, chill for my taste; I could have used more of the contemporary spirit as dispensed by Ives, and -- in Feinberg‘s unique, personal vision -- no less by Bach.

Apropos chill: At the Philharmonic last week there was bad Grieg (the first suite of Peer Gynt music; why, in God’s name?) and worse Sibelius (the Violin Concerto, luridly tarted up in Midori‘s overnuanced reading). Esa-Pekka Salonen didn’t make it in time for the downbeat; at intermission people were swapping I-10 traffic horror stories. The Grieg was led by the Philharmonic‘s assistant conductor, the excellent Yasuo Shinozaki, but this is music you or I could conduct blindfolded. Why, as long as we’re blindfolded, are there so many bad romantic concertos in D minor? Just asking.

After intermission there came Carl Nielsen‘s Fifth Symphony, and now you know why I was there. This is music from 1922, about the same time as the Ives Celestial Railroad, and in some ways equally rambunctious. The sounds of distant battle inform the work; within the orchestra there are arguments between winds and brass, or among the brass themselves, that seem to want to tear the music apart. Out front there is, of all Ivesian touches, a solo snare drum -- the Philharmonic’s Perry Dreiman beating an insistent tattoo, challenging the rest of the players to join in, responding sarcastically when they refuse. At the end the ghost of Brahms, perhaps even of Mahler, sweeps across the battlefield.

Wonderful, strange music, this. Salonen spoke briefly, wittily, about the essence of the music, its conflicts and its resolutions. When he talks about music, he almost invariably makes better sense than the official pre-concert jabberwocky upstairs. Then he conducts the music, and that, too, makes sense. This was a great performance; more Nielsen, please.

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