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Boys of Bad Music 

Thursday, Jan 22 2004
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In his sweat-drenched confessional called Bad Boy of Music, George Antheil allowed as how his discovery of the music of the future came to him in a dream. Acting upon his visions, he abandoned his comfortable Trenton, New Jersey, home, caught the next boat for Europe, and set about demolishing pianos to the delight of cultural nabobs in the major capitals. The time was the early 1920s; an American composer with exotica in his luggage — a Sonate Sauvage or an Airplane Sonata — was sure to draw crowds. (Last week’s Antheil jamboree at LACMA delivered the curious information that he still does.) Antheil, in 1922, was young and, I gather, rather pretty; he was handed around among the Virgil Thomson crowd, the Gertrude Stein crowd, the Jean Cocteau crowd. Ezra Pound wrote an adoring monograph about his music, which I tried to read once but gave up on after a sugar reaction set in.

Antheil’s noise piece, the Ballet Mécanique, had earned a mix of épater le bourgeois and flop in Paris and New York; so did a later series of indefinable attempts at pursuing the chimera of the “music of the future.” He died in 1959, leaving behind a quantity of undistinguished Hollywood scores (one of which, a clip from The Pride and the Passion, was an embarrassing addition to the LACMA program), but also a trunkload of unpublished material to which later generations of Antheil mythologists have attached the romantic epithet “lost.” Charles Amirkhanian, one of my successors as music director of KPFA in Berkeley and ardent supporter of losing causes, co-wrote the Antheil entry in Grove’s Dictionary (and stands up as well for Alan Hovhaness). The latest tub-thumper is the pianist Guy Livingston, whose visits to LACMA’s Monday Evening Concerts have been eccentric enough in their own right, if you remember his recital of “60 one-minute compositions” a couple of years ago. His recent night of “lost George Antheil” was weirder by far.

For one thing, the program was clothed in a dramatic context: Livingston in 1920s shabby-genteel getup, typing away on a Bad Boy manuscript and reading therefrom in a tremulous tone no match for the rampant egotism of the text. Then he played music, painfully protracted excerpts from “lost sonatas” 3 and 5, which moseyed on and on with no shape or sense of direction. Were they beginnings? Endings? Random pages fished out of “rejects” bins? There was no way of knowing, and no reason for wanting to know. This was an awful concert; inexplicably, it drew one of LACMA’s largest Monday Evening Concert audiences.

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The audience the next night, at Zipper Concert Hall, was far smaller, the rewards far greater. Leonard Stein, gray eminence and one of five co-founders of the excellent Piano Spheres series, has earned a distinguished retirement; his place on the series this year was taken by the splendid young pianist (and, if you care, former ophthalmologist) Scott Dunn, with a visionary and varied program that included one masterwork (Elliott Carter’s 1945 Sonata), one utterly charming non-masterwork (Richard Rodney Bennett’s Noctuary), and some almost-bearable stuff by Chopin and Lukas Foss. In a time when we are beset with young, emergent performers of limited repertory delivered with unlimited flamboyance, Scott Dunn’s concert was exceptional in a number of agreeable ways.

What bright, eloquent music, that tidy, two-movement work by the 37-year-old Carter! The Sonata belongs in “early” Carter, but already there is his striking use of sonority and resonance — not merely as sound but as something to be composed with — that gets tangled up with all the rest of his abstruse workmanship later on. The final jazzy fugue is, would you believe, delightful, a word I use with Carter’s music only with great caution. The Sonata runs 25 minutes; I would gladly have heard it twice, at the sacrifice of Lukas Foss’ nattering, minimalist–rip-off Solo for Piano. (Did Foss ever write anything of his own?) Rodney Bennett’s Noctuary was another kind of delight, an essay on Scott Joplin’s winsome Mexican serenade called Solace (you heard it in The Sting) that floats through the musical language, acquires harmonic complications along its way, climaxes as an unlikely essay in 12-tone, then wafts back to Scott Joplin’s earth.

 

Back on that earth, there were also some most welcome British visitors, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and his “Revolutionary and Romantic” Orchestra, serenading a Royce Hall crowd (plus far too many empty seats) with glorious, sharp-edged Handel, Haydn and Mozart. The Haydn was the Lord Nelson Mass of 1798, arguably the finest of the Austrian master’s choral works. The performance was somewhat compromised: Winds were used rather than the massive summonings of a proper organ, but the famous outlines of Gardiner’s clear, classic points of view were there to be observed and admired. (For that matter, the entire evening was somewhat compromised by the lack of proper promotion and by the lack of printed text handouts. Has UCLA Live stopped caring about its serious musical offerings? This program, and last month’s by the Tallis Scholars, ranked among the town’s best-kept secrets, or so you’d think by the paltry crowds.)

For those of us there, it was a splendid evening, ennobled by Sir John’s individual sensibility, and by the rich, balanced sound of the vocal ensemble — 24 strong — and in the individual excellence of an angelic young soprano whose name, Angharad Gruffydd-Jones, is only the least diverting of her qualities. It began royally, with Zadok, the Priest, one of Handel’s grandest coronation anthems, brought on with the blazing brass of long, natural trumpets and the great Handelian counterpoints that melt into hallelujahs once all the voices are safely tucked in. A Mozart Vesper Service (K. 339) came next, velvety, deep music on its own, its piety nicely squared off until about two-thirds in, when a stupendous fugue takes shape on the same subject that will later serve as the “Kyrie” in the Requiem, which served Handel as “And with His stripes” in Messiah and Bach as Fugue VIII in Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. How small the world!

I suppose I should write about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s concert with the orchestra of the Crossroads School at Disney Hall, but there’s a problem. The orchestra is famous and proficient; its program — Haydn, Mozart, Bartók — was well-chosen; it was clear that Salonen had rehearsed them carefully. But the music was heard against a background of noise so continuous — feet stomping against that famously resonant floor, doors slamming constantly during performances, applause at every nook and cranny — that concentration became a matter of service beyond the call. I know good things about the education offered at Crossroads, but a course in concert manners — compulsory for all ticket holders, students, parents and, for all I know, board members — might be a valuable addition to the curriculum.

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