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Gadgetry Galore 

Thursday, Nov 13 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

FINDING YOUR WAY through the intricate programming of this first Disney Hall season — the “Creation Festival” here, the “Baroque Variations” there, the “Sounds About Town” all over the place — is as challenging a process as finding your way through the hall itself. I note with some amusement the new hand-lettered stickers in the elevators, clarifying that “3” equals “Terrace” or “East Orchestra” or whatever. A troop of Boy Scouts or Saint Bernards, stationed through the corridors, might also be in order.

Last Friday saw the inaugural of “First Nights,” the L.A. Philharmonic’s new series to explain, and then perform, music that ruffled feathers at its inception; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was the logical choice for starters. Even so, I approached with some trepidation. Harvard’s Dr. Thomas Kelly, whose book gives the series its title, does not inspire my admiration; his book, an avatar of what Virgil Thomson used to call “the music-appreciation racket,” is a slick but unbalanced job. (Imagine, in the discography, a survey of Messiah performances that doesn’t list a single vocalist!) On the Disney stage Prof. Kelly was no less slick and — in his attempt to act out choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet steps — no less unbalanced. After this sorry disquisition, however, there came a kind of magic: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting one of the Rite’s spectacular outbursts, with a gathering of costumed dancers struggling with the beat, an actor impersonating Nijinsky screaming out numbers and a well-placed claque of vociferous protesters throughout the hall, enacting the famous first-night Paris riot of May 1913 that did, indeed, launch that music’s notoriety.

Not everything worked that well. The assembled actors — as Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, conductor Pierre Monteux — made something of a goulash out of affected accents, and John de Lancie’s narration (of his own text) moved in and out of focus, as is his wont. Mostly, however, the hour’s worth of concocted entertainment led cleverly to the final performance by Salonen and the orchestra — preceded, as it had been on that night in 1913, by the saccharine closing moments of Chopin’s Les Sylphides. That, I needn’t tell you, was the cat’s pajamas.

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The program was sold out, with thwarted attendees lined up at the box office. So, in fact, was the first “Green Umbrella” event earlier in the week (with the hall’s stratospheric balcony wisely closed). Think of it: more than 1,900 new-music aficionados at a concert that used to draw something like 400 at its previous venue, across the street at Zipper Hall. The program was hardly condescending: new or almost-new works for single instruments, with or without electronic support, performed by Philharmonic members. Some, not all, was rather wonderful: Thomas Adès’ piano nocturne Darknesse Visible, enchantingly played (at the edge of silence) by Joanne Pearce Martin; David Breidenthal gobble-gobbling his way through a Colin Matthews piece for solo bassoon; concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s spellbinding playing of Salonen’s Laughing Unlearnt, last heard two summers ago at the Ford Amphitheater. The program’s one “classic,” Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint for solo clarinet (Lorin Levee) and eight more on tape, was somewhat misrepresented by the big distance between solo instrument and the taped companions on loudspeakers; the piece relies more, I think, on give-and-take than on wide-open spaces.

 

TWO WEEKENDS AGO there was Bach aplenty: five concertos by Musica Angelica at Zipper, four more by London’s Academy of Ancient Music at the Queen Mary — a “Historic Site” if ever one was. Michael Eagan’s Musica Angelica has been around for a while, mostly in pleasant, rather informal concerts in churches. Last year it decided to expand — in image if not in numbers; now it is allied with the Colburn School, and has upped its ticket prices accordingly: $47 for the Zipper concert, as opposed to $44 for the Academy on shipboard.

The mathematics did not match the events: the solemn, slogging and sometimes sloppy performances by Eagan’s group, with the three and four harpsichords grinding away like so many sewing machines and the string players dropping notes all over the place. (I except, of course, the eloquent baroque violin of visiting soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock, who rose high above her fellows all evening.) Eagan’s archlute served as continuo in several of the concertos, but did so practically inaudibly (to these ears, anyway, in a seat halfway back in the excellent Zipper) and without anything identifiable as a firm beat. Los Angeles deserves a permanent early-music ensemble, and Angelica has been pushing hard for that kind of recognition, but I didn’t hear playing that night worthy of that status — and certainly not worthy of $47.

From the Academy’s hard-edged Mozart on their Christopher Hogwood discs of the 1980s, I would not have expected the warm, flexible and — yes — humorous performances that made the Sunday drive to Long Beach eminently rewarding. This was a small group from the larger ensemble — eight players, led from Richard Eggar’s harpsichord, and lit from within by the seductive burble of Rachel Brown’s flute (and her piccolo, in the one encore). Nobody has yet come up with a single “definitive” way of performing Bach, and that is just fine. What remains true, however, is the rubric that, however flexible the tempi and the phrasing, however mighty the performing forces, Bach is never dull. Listen to the supreme masterwork on the Academy program, the D-minor keyboard concerto (part of which also served Bach in one of his church cantatas); listen especially to the rhapsody spun forth by the solo harpsichord above the dark menace of the strings in the slow movement. If ever music dug deep into the souls of the listeners, to sing of matters beyond the power of any imagined words, it is in these eight or so minutes of wordless passion. Angelica had played the same music the night before — in the violin-concerto reconstruction — and it was just plain . . . dull.

At LACMA, the New York New Music Ensemble took “Elektro Akoustiks: The New Tradition” to title its local visit, but in a sequence of short works by Jonathan Harvey, Eric Chasalow, Ezequiel Viñao and Mathew Rosenblum, ending with David Felder’s Partial [dist] res[s]toration, I found that the cute orthography far outweighed any strength of spirit in the music, or any joy in performing it. Two nights later, the EAR Unit, with its usual kind of joyous perusal — above all of two strong works by the late (and much-missed) Earle Brown — restored confidence that there is still something to be said these days in music’s varied realms, and still some pleasure in the act of saying it.

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