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That Other ’70s Show 

Thursday, Mar 13 2003
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Photo by Lauri Eriksson

Having served us nobly, for the past 30 years or so, in resurrecting both the music of the distant past and its surrounding ambiance — baroque chamber music in a baroque-rip-off Pasadena mansion, say — MaryAnn Bonino's Da Camera Society has now brought its explorations to within shooting range of nowadays. The substance on a recent sunny Sunday was some of the musical monkeying that had been perpetrated hereabouts in and around the 1970s. The chosen venue was the reconverted railroad freight depot that now houses the anything-but-retro enclave of architectural wisdom known as SCI-Arc. For baroque gimcrackery, substitute raw concrete. The entertainment, too, was solid.

Ah, the '70s! In New York the movement known as Fluxus had served to rekindle the anything-goes spirit of Dada of the recent past: the topless Charlotte Moorman playing her cello (not too well); Nam June Paik mooning the audience (sparse, I'm happy to report); La Monte Young and his smashed (cheapo) violins. Something of Fluxus emigrated to CalArts in its early days, back when it was the only enclave of human habitation up on the hills above Valencia. Most of the membership of the current California E.A.R. Unit — which performed at the concert two weeks ago — were students at CalArts in those days. You could trace their Fluxus inheritance right at the start, as the group distributed the afternoon's printed programs to the crowd in the form of paper airplanes. Later on, indeed, a violin got smashed.

There was greater substance in other of the afternoon's music, but not necessarily higher excellence. There was Henry Brant, doing then what he does now, trying to enhance the impact of some basically academic note-spinning by spreading the performers around the space. There was some of Frank Zappa's indigestible goulash, stirring half a dozen kinds of music (rock, blues, 12-tone, misunderstood Varèse) into one cacophonous proclamation that Unplayable Is Preferable. There were early pieces by composers on their way up — James Tenney, Steven Mosko, Daniel Lentz — in show-off styles they would soon disown. And there was one piece, Mel Powell's serene, fragrant Immobiles for instruments delicately surrounded by electronic murmurings, that on the criterion of pure quality was worthier than anything else that day.

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But the concert wasn't so much about quality as spirit. Everything that was happening in the '70s — at least everything that was sampled at this one exhilarating event — seemed to be happening for the first time. Electronic music was a brand-new box of toys only recently opened. Other composers — Yannis Xenakis, for one — would invent more interesting uses for space than Henry Brant had found. Mel Powell would create a more extensive, even more beautiful legacy than this one small jewel. As the low man in the critics' hierarchy at The New York Times, I was assigned to most of the Fluxus events at Carnegie Recital Hall and other low-rent venues way back when, but I don't remember any of them as being as much fun, or as loaded with as much truly smart joyousness, as the E.A.R. Unit provides these days. It was fun reliving the past for that one afternoon — and the SCI-Arc building, teeming with young, creative impulse, was surely worth the trip — but I prefer being here.

Later that same Sunday there was Karita Mattila's vocal recital at the Music Center, almost all of it consisting of uninteresting music lit up by radiant artistry. She is an extraordinary singer, to be sure. I haven't heard anyone in a long time with her ability to turn notes into insinuations, to shape a musical phrase into a caress at one moment, a defiance at another, and at another, thanksgiving at the mere existence of birds, trees and iridescent dragonflies. I also haven't heard anyone in a long time so aware of the incomparable value of working with a pianist — the irreplaceable Martin Katz — as a collaborator and not just a tag-along accompanist.

Yet the program was almost consistently second-rate: a wad of Henri Duparc, when the heart cried out for Debussy; a wayward mess of Sibelius, although the one about the dragonfly had its prettiness; five inferior chunks of Rachmaninoff. Dvorak's Gypsy Songs, though not exactly masterworks, were lit up with Mattila's lovely sense of warm humor; the one familiar number from the set, "Songs My Mother Taught Me," was also the evening's one excursion into pure, unalloyed beauty. I want her back, in Schumann and Debussy.

Later in the week she joined compatriot Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic in the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, sang them gorgeously, but reminded me of how much I dislike these insipidities from the composer's senile years. I know those words are impolite; one must genuflect before a bygone celebrity who, at 80 or so, can still hold a pen. Strauss wrote pretty songs, even attractive songs, in his early years. He also had a unique knack of composing to make the soprano voice sound ravishing beyond the strengths of the music itself, and we have the dangerously seductive Rosenkavalier and the unspeakable Arabella to bear this out. That gift remained; the Four Last Songs exist to melt strong hearts from the vocal sheen of an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, perhaps a Renée Fleming. Mattila, by the same token, did not quite make them work; her performance, for all its thrust, suffered from an excess of intelligence. The audience did, of course, go gaga, as well they should.

The program also included Witold Lutoslawski's Fourth Symphony, whose world premiere the Philharmonic had given in 1993. It remains a troublesome work. Here again you have to admire the aging composer, and for better reasons than for Strauss. There are wonderful sounds here; the very first measures, with the orchestra emerging from a dark hole and the winds sounding a dire imprecation, arrest the attention. But there is a disturbing disconnectedness about the piece, moments of a dead stop and a resumption somewhere else, that inspires me with the awful suspicion that this marvelous, cherishable composer had run out of energy too soon. The great works of Lutoslawski, not much before this final essay, are robust and teeming; in their shadow, this one work makes me wish it didn't exist.

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