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Note After Note 

Thursday, Nov 4 2004
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Photo by Alice Arnold

Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations), the Master Chorale’s gleaming new acquisition unveiled at Disney Hall last weekend under Grant Gershon’s proud direction, starts off on congenial ground. We are immediately thrust among old friends: the Reich signature of pulsating polytonal chords lit with the familiar ping of marimbas and vibes. Music for 18 Musicians began that way in 1976; so did The Desert Music in ’84. The latter piece used a small chorus to intone and entwine brief lines from William Carlos Williams; the new work for small chorus and instruments — a co-commission by the Master Chorale, Lincoln Center and Germany’s Ensemble Modern — incorporates “aphoristic truisms” (Reich’s words) from ancient Hebrew and more recent Wittgenstein, sources Reich has used before. The marvel of the latest work is the newness of its expression, the fresh sounds and messages Reich has found within materials that are already known aspects of his musical language.

The essence of that language is repetition, and the richness of impact to be gained from the infinite variety of that technique. “You are wherever your thoughts are” is the line by a Hasidic mystic that gives the work its title. Like a jewel examined in changing light, the text rises and falls through the instrumental texture, with single words or entire phrases passing in and out of audibility. Like all of Reich’s music, the work must use amplification in live performance as a means, he explains, of controlling the clarity in the percussive textures. In Disney, where amplification problems still loom, there were moments of harshness.

This kind of music, which has grown directly from Reich’s earliest minimalist exercises and flourishes mightily, is now only a part of his legacy. Beside it are his multimedia pieces — The Cave, Three Tales — in which other kinds of lyric writing usurp the attention and in which some fascinating uses of speech patterns become further elements among musical sources. He continues to find new uses for his “classic” minimalist techniques, as You Are (Variations) handsomely suggests. His publisher recently sent along a tape of a new Counterpoint for cello and tape, a worthy shelf-mate for the “Vermont” (flute) and “Manhattan” (clarinet) Counterpoints. He becomes positively flirtatious when the matter of writing an opera comes up in conversation. The final text for this splendid new work for the Master Chorale, it might be worth noting in this regard, is “Say little and do much.”

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Piano Spheres and Lead Balloons

At Zipper Auditorium two nights later, Gloria Cheng began the 11th season of Piano Spheres, with the presence — only in spirit this time — of founding mentor and participant Leonard Stein, who left us last June. Some of her program had been Stein’s choice (for himself, although his fingers had been stilled a year before). Seventy rain-soaked minutes on I-10 had cost me the first of Schoenberg’s Opus 19 “Little Piano Pieces”; what I heard elicited from Cheng the elegance, the fantasy, the daring of a young composer breaking through that I doubt Stein could have approached at any time in Piano Spheres’ history. Stein had also pushed for George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, and indeed this British composer needs better attention over here than this set of wispy short pieces suggests. The evening’s strongest work was also short and also Brit: a single section from Harrison Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks, marvelously intricate and witty, an emphatic drumbeat for a composer whose neglect — locally, and in the U.S. on the whole — measured against his considerable strengths is a matter of some shame.

Music by two composers named Stephen Taylor — a set of sound-effect pieces by Stephen Andrew relative to scenic wonders (Antarctica, Tibet, etc.) and something by Stephen James about anger expressed in intervals of seconds and sevenths — were further linked by shared triviality. Stephen Andrew offended with his fondness for fortissimo trills with great handfuls of notes at the top of the keyboard, a process for the inflicting of pain upon large numbers of trapped people that bears criminal investigation.

 

In Praise Of Popov

But for the irresistible evangelism of Alex Ross, periodically in The New Yorker and virtually day-to-day on his Web site (www.therestisnoise.com), I might have passed to an unquiet grave without hearing a note of the music of Gavriil Popov; now curiosity and satisfaction possess my inmost soul. Popov’s dates are 1904–72, making him an almost exact contemporary of Dmitri Shostakovich; his music made something of a splash last summer as part of Leon Botstein’s Shostakovich Festival at Bard College. There were recordings, apparently rather dim, of three of his seven symphonies on the Olympia label, now defunct. Now there is a new recording of No. 1 on Telarc, not at all dim, with Botstein conducting the London Symphony.

The Popov story reads like that of Shostakovich, but without the happy endings. This First Symphony, commemorating the October Revolution, had won a newspaper prize; the day after its 1935 premiere it was attacked and banned in Pravda as “formalist,” reflecting “the ideology of classes hostile to us.” The ban was eventually lifted, but Popov was scarred by the experience. For the rest of his life he ground out safely non-formalist, party-line music. He had some contact with Shostakovich, but they were not close.

This First Symphony, then, can be taken as the one work encapsulating Popov’s full genius, which is considerable. The work, in three movements, lasts about 50 minutes. The Shostakovich Fourth comes to mind in the music’s massive outreach, but Popov’s control of his material makes for a tighter, stronger organization. David Fanning’s program notes refer to a “manic momentum,” and that is a fair estimate. The shape (“formalism” if you prefer) of the first movement disturbs me somewhat; it seems to come to an end too soon. Perhaps a conductor with a greater command of oratory than the rather all-purpose Leon Botstein can make this work better, although this recording is already an open window to a remarkable “new” masterwork.

Obiter dictum: As promised, I checked out the B-team for the L.A. Opera’s Carmen, a group most notably motivated by the vital, sizzling conducting of Nicola Luisotti — whose arrival in the pit the orchestral musicians loudly cheered. May he soon return, in better company. Catherine Malfitano is the aged, clumsy star, her tattered off-cue voice the ghost of Carmens past. “Je veux danser en votre honneur,” she tells Don José in Act 2, and proceeds to “dance in his honor” by standing stock-still without a twitch. Mario Malagnini is the acceptable B-team José; at least he doesn’t bray.

I promised I’d go, but I didn’t promise I’d stay to the end. I mean . . . gee whiz, folks!

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