By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When I arrived in Los Angeles, the musical power structure was uniquely strong and active, and it gave the lie to the suspicions my New York friends frequently voiced, that I was out of my mind to give up a power job in the East and move out to where nothing ever happens. The Philharmonic’s Ernest Fleischmann had taken unto himself a lot of the music director’s prerogatives, which had made Giulini happy and, before him, Zubin Mehta. It enabled Fleischmann to scour the world for young talent: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle on the podium, and the lamented Robert Harth in the front office. It also encouraged Fleischmann to create brave new programs like the “Green Umbrella” series, and promote them properly. Lawrence Morton was still on hand here; he had run adventurous new-music concerts, first as “Evenings on the Roof” on a rooftop studio in Silver Lake in 1939, now as the “Monday Evening Concerts” at the County Museum (where they’re still going on, under Dorrance Stalvey’s astute leadership). Leonard Stein, Arnold Schoenberg’s right-hand assistant at one time, ran the Schoenberg Institute at USC and organized musical events and symposia all over town. And Betty Freeman spent her money wisely to pay composers’ rent and underwrite recordings of their music, and invited them to her home to talk about their music to small gatherings and have it performed by excellent local musicians.
Win a few, lose a few. Los Angeles finally gained its long-overdue professional opera company, although there was some ominous symbolism in the fact that the opening-night curtain on the company’s first-ever performance, in October 1986, stuck halfway up and resisted all efforts at dislodging for several throat-tightening minutes. Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena’s ideal small concert hall, was shuttered in the collapse of its fundamentalist governing board and looms unused to this day. The excellent Sequoia String Quartet fell victim to internal dissent, as did the well-attended Chamber Music L.A. concert series at the Japan America. After two or three exhilarating seasons of amazing fare brought in from all over — including Osvaldo Golijov’s St. Mark Passion and György Ligeti’s Piece for 100 Metronomes — Orange County’s Eclectic Orange Festival appears to have been squeezed dry, from the look of next season’s ordinary playlist. Inside and out, however, Walt Disney Concert Hall sounds almost as good as it looks, and gives the concept of music in Los Angeles an enhanced stature at a time when that kind of boost is sorely needed.
Music, it is an open secret, is in bad shape: orchestras folding, composers reduced to waiting on tables. Criticism, oddly enough, may be in better shape, so long as people realize why it’s important. I write criticism as a way of reporting on the rise and fall of the cultural health of the community. Sure, most of the events I write about are history by the time my report gets into print. What remains, I like to think, is the extent of my reaction: The fact that I got worked up about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance of such-and-such a new work, or Mitsuko Uchida’s way with a Schubert sonata, or Robert Wilson’s staging of Madama Butterfly, will make people want to experience these people’s work the next time around. A city that can support, and fill, a Walt Disney Concert Hall night after night — and can turn out in fair numbers for an all-Bartók concert at the County Museum, and for Jordi Savall’s viola da gamba at the Getty — is the city I feel like writing to, sharing my enthusiasms with. When I run out of great performances to write about, there is always great music to be discovered and, a few years later, rediscovered. I don’t think I will ever run out of new things to discover in the Beethoven “Eroica.” Or that Mozart quintet. Or Renée Fleming singing Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume.” Or . . .
When New York magazine gave me a page of my own, with the implication that I could be trusted to write about whatever interested me so long as I kept the magazine out of the courts, I succumbed to the delusion that I knew something about everything. Those early pages, which I keep as a kind of memento mori, contain some pretty embarrassing stuff from beyond my field of awareness, about Balanchine’s choreography and rock & roll. I got a free trip to London from RCA to hear its new star David Bowie, and came back with a clever headline — “I’ve Been to London To Visit the Queen” — and no valid information at all. My worst howler, long before New York, was to condemn Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as “sentimental.” (It didn’t, you see, sound like the Rite of Spring, which was the only Stravinsky I knew.)
Rich in 2004
(Photo by Debra DiPaolo)
If I’ve learned anything over the past few decades, it has been that there is nothing disgraceful in recognizing one’s own limitations and operating within them. My admirable colleague, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross — 45 years younger by his own admission — is doing now, wisely, what I tried to do, unwisely, back then. With the background and the breadth of intellect that I only imagined I possessed, he has reinvented musical criticism and made it stick, relocating the boundaries of the territory so that he can write about Sonic Youth and the Beethoven Fifth and locate them exactly in the broader scheme of things. His long article from last February, “Listen to This,” a map of the territory brilliantly plotted and drawn, is on his Web site (www.therestis noise.com), and it’s required reading. It tells me, as clearly as any evidence I’ve come across in a very long time, that there’s hope for us, after all, and for music, too. So far, in other words, so good.
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