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Now and Then 

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FOUR PLAY

A couple of Saturdays ago there was Mozart in Santa Monica, four young string players astonished at the harmonic suspensions at the start of the C-major Quartet (K. 465) and eager to share their discoveries with a pleased audience. This came midway in one of the "Jacaranda Music" programs at the First Presbyterian Church, all Mozart and all velvet, but this performance — by the young quartet that calls itself Denali (after the native name for Alaska’s mountain otherwise known as McKinley) — was the special delight. The next afternoon there was another Mozart quartet, in Pasadena this time, when the venerable and much-honored Guarneri played the B-flat (K. 589) at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium — not this time, I’m sorry to say, with communicable astonishment, but merely as the first number on the latest concert of their latest tour. The Jacaranda concert, in the second year of this new series, which is quickly building a happy audience of mixed young and old, drew about half a house; the Coleman Concerts at Beckman, which play to a large codger contingent, had people begging tickets at the door.

I found the Guarneri concert depressing on the whole, even the concluding Ravel Quartet, which is so full of wonderful sounds that it usually helps even tired musicians score points. The Guarneri’s publicity is full of the wonderment of their having played together for the last 40-or-whatever years, but that was what was wrong with their performances that day. I prefer the Denali’s way of playing, edgy and full of shared surprise, and that of another excellent upcoming new local quartet, the Calder — with the advantage of both groups’ young approach to music that was born young. The Denali returns to the Jacaranda series on January 15, and its music this time will be the four string quartets by Silvestre Revueltas: edgy, disorienting music by an ecstatic, inexplicable genius.

Those last four adjectives also came to mind during the Arditti Quartet’s playing at the County Museum a few nights later, along with "awesome" and "inscrutable." "Lovable," however, did not. The Arditti’s latest ballbreaker repertory over its illustrious 30 years — with personnel changes but with first violinist Irvine Arditti the one constant — bristles with questions posed but unanswered; the sheer, slick intensity of their playing becomes an art form removed from matters of what it is they are trying to communicate. Composers who feed this repertory have their own followings; Brian Ferneyhough, whose Third Quartet constituted the thorny centerpiece of this last program, is apparently some sort of paradigm. I, too, admire splendid machinery, but seek musical gratifications elsewhere.

. . . with Yo-Yo and Mannie, for example. I don’t know how many times Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax have played Beethoven’s cello sonatas, together or with other partners; given the works’ standing in the repertory, I would guess quite a few. Yet the sense of ho-hum-another-gig that spoiled the Guarneri’s concert, or of wheels going around at the Arditti’s, was nowhere present at this altogether superior meeting of the minds a few nights later at Royce. The music made some difference, of course; three works from across the chronology of Beethoven’s genius said three different and fascinating things about instrumental discourse, culminating in the cat-and-mouse games in the finale of Opus 102, No. 1, which these players made me understand fully for the first time in a lifetime of puzzled listening.

AS TIME GOES BY

Our music has a remarkable past, which is gradually slipping away. A look at the program assembled for the memorial for Leonard Stein, last Saturday at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church, suggested the breadth of the musical world that fell under Leonard’s purview during his time among us, which ended with his death, at 87, last June. There was Arnold Schoenberg, of course, whom Stein served as teaching assistant, editor and — through the Schoenberg Institute, which he founded at USC — promulgator to the outside world. There were the other members of the Los Angeles émigré colony — Berthold Viertel, for example, whose poems Stein set to music. There was Charles Ives, whose music came to Los Angeles via the "Evenings on the Roof" concerts starting in 1939, which used Stein’s services as pianist, musical assistant, even page turner.

The "Roof" concerts continue, of course, as the Monday Evening Concerts at LACMA, and the "Piano Spheres" concerts, which Stein co-founded with four of the area’s best pianists, seem to get better all the time. (They began at the Neighborhood Church, but have moved on to Zipper Hall.) All the founding "Spheres" pianists were on hand for the memorial concert, in solos, duets and as accompanists to singers who were also part of Stein’s history. Notable among these was Marni Nixon, who sang some of Schoenberg’s delightful early songs (yes, delightful Schoenberg!): the same Marni who sang Webern in the old Robert Craft album, who was the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady . . . and is singing still. Mark Robson, whose recent "Piano Spheres" concert was one of the liveliest and most enterprising ever, was her pianist.

Gloria Cheng repeated Schoenberg’s lovely little Opus 19 pieces she had played so luminously at a recent "Spheres" concert. Susan Svrcek and Vicki Ray delivered a piano duet by Stein himself. The Harbisons, Rosemary and John, came west to perform Schoenberg’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano; the Juilliard Quartet’s Joel Krosnick played Elliott Carter in A Small Suite for Leonard. It was an afternoon of discoveries and re-discoveries, including a few cute, tiny pieces by Stein himself that he may or may not have wanted unearthed. The program didn’t make up for the loss of Leonard Stein himself, his gnarled figure booming out thoughts wise and cantankerous from the back row of nearly every concert on the schedule, but it lit up vivid memories of a lot of what he stood for.

Obiter dictum: The L.A. Opera fielded its B team as the tragic lovers for its last three La Bohème performances — the Alagnas, husband (tenor Roberto) and wife (soprano Angela Gheorghiu), noted for their his-and-her romantic roles (including a well-praised film of Tosca) and for a number of scars, now healed, from skirmishes with major operatic companies, a press agent’s dream. On opening night, Gheorghiu sang like an angel, got the biggest ovations, and drew the most copious tears in her death scene. Alagna sang like what, alas, he seems doomed to remain: a tenor not quite first-class, impressively loud but depressingly off-pitch, compensating with a repertory of lurid gestures that are really unfortunate, since he isn’t so bad-looking, piecing together a career in someone else’s shadow. How sad.

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