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Disney Primeval 

Thursday, Dec 4 2003
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TO ALL THAT OPULENCE on view at Disney Hall, REDCAT is the perfect counterbalance. Nobody cares about the acoustics, since most of its music is miked. Nobody cares about the look of the place, since its 200-seat space is infinitely adjustable. You don’t begrudge Walt Disney his kazillion-dollar entry to high culture through Frank Gehry’s fabulous doorway upstairs. But REDCAT — whose name stands for Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater — transports us in spirit to Walt in his workshop in the 1920s, roughing out the early adventures of Oswald the Rabbit, hobnobbing with the likes of Salvador Dali, learning firsthand about hunger pangs. The first few nights of REDCAT’s “official” opening were nicely planned (as had been Disney Hall’s upstairs): retrospectives of electronic music from CalArts founding father Mort Subotnick and of Walt’s early cartoons, a night with CalArts’ current new-music ensemble: no masterpieces, but good energy.

There’s an interesting turnaround here. When Disney’s dream of a school for all the arts materialized in the underpopulated spaces of 1969 Valencia, its first generations of students placed high value on the isolation of the place — someplace to drop in and drop out, when such things were important. Now the emphasis has apparently shifted toward this downtown beachhead; certainly the performance schedule over the next few months — one “creative music festival” after another, jazz from Anthony Braxton, Scottish marching bands, multimedia artists, our own EAR Unit (itself a CalArts offshoot) honoring founding father Mel Powell, something called “Plunderphonics” with someone called John Oswald — sets up a whole new contemporary force in our midst. Will CalArts itself follow this southward tidal wave? When you ponder the relative value of all that tracted land around Valencia compared to 1969’s wide-open spaces, you can’t help wondering.

What I like most about REDCAT, in fact, is its success in transplanting that “drop in, drop out” message right into downtown — a counterpart to Mrs. Disney’s 24/7 garden upstairs. There’s a café with good coffee, an art show, daytime musical and performance events that seem to take shape spontaneously, some video now and then, even a bookstore — tiny, but intelligently stocked. All this, plus MOCA across the street.

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UPSTAIRS, as if to carry on this catalog of miracles, there was Pierre Boulez last week to lead the Philharmonic in agonizing, deeply probing music: the first movement of the 10th Symphony that Mahler had left unfinished, and the second act of the Parsifal that was Wagner’s most disturbed music drama — not a program for the insecure of faith. Set against this was the further miracle of Boulez himself, whose interpretive art deepens and haunts the memory even as his presence on the podium in recent years becomes the more abstract. The most important musician of his time, he seems obsessed with embodying the essence of that time in the simplest, most rational terms. On Friday night he and his orchestra had sought out, and revealed in full glory, the lyric essence of the German Romantic line — the single line from which the Mahler adagio departs and to which it makes its pain-racked return, the coiling, dangerously expanding complex of lines with which Wagner nails our stupefied souls, each of us, to our own cross. The emotion this night, further lit in the audible flames from the driven, inspired orchestra (and the vocal ensemble led by Willard White’s searing Klingsor), was as intense as any audience should be asked to endure fully clothed.

Earlier last week, Disney’s other resident ensemble announced its arrival, as Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale reminded us, via John Adams’ Harmonium, how long this excellent composer has been in our midst. Adams has traveled great distances since 1981, and the occasional rough-cut passages here, the minimalist patches that seem patchier than a later Adams might countenance, draw an indulgent smile. Our gratitude to Gershon for reviving this edgy masterpiece is unbounded, especially so in the context of a choral concert rather than a symphonic event. Audiences for choral concerts tend toward conservatism. Tune in, as I did this last time, on conversations among clumps of church organists; you can wonder if you’re listening on the same planet. The diapason crowd surely must have found greater surcease in the pretty, overstuffed but basically small-scale pieces Bobby McFerrin had composed for the group; Gershon was right to perform them, but he was on even firmer ground in scheduling the Adams. Right on, Grant!

 

IN AS MANY PERFORMANCES of Orfeo ed Euridice as I’ve succumbed to in six or so decades of operagoing — a dozen, maybe — it has never occurred to me to look upon Gluck’s sovereign score as dull, or unbalanced, or anything but noble and generally uplifting. It has taken our local forces to instill those other points of view, which it now has, I’m sorry to say, in the production currently at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through December 21). I find it a bane to the eye, an insult to most other senses (including common). The crowd on opening night, honor bids me report, cheered — not loudly, but cheered nonetheless.

The opera exists in two basic versions. The first, in Italian, was performed in Vienna in 1762. The second, in French, was given in Paris in 1774. The common version today is a conflation of the two, sung in Italian but with the changes and additions of the French version. Reverting to the 1762 version, as was done here, deprives us of many cherishable details large and small: Euridice’s sublime Elysian aria, and most of the Elysian ballet, including the D-minor solo for flute that has been reckoned the most beautiful melody ever composed for that instrument. (In the Cocteau Orphée, it’s the tune that comes over the car radio.)

The pangs of deprivation are deep. They are deepened by the absurdity of the production, in which a blank frame-shaped structure lumbers up and down on the stage, obscuring the feet of Lucinda Childs’ dancers and setting up nonsensical barriers. Vivica Genaux, the Orfeo, wears a tieless tux and a floor-length coat, looks like a young Tom Cruise, but lacks the body in her voice to fill in the role. (The sublime Kathleen Ferrier recordings have just been reissued on London.) Maria Bayo, the Euridice, chirps prettily in the few scraps of the score left to her; so, with an even smaller plateful of scraps, does Carmen Giannattasio as Amor, God of Love. Both are wasted on this trivial evening, as was I.

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