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Sharp Contrasts 

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
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Late Night Thoughts

Seven years separated the writing of Mahler’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies; just a week separated their hearings at Disney Hall early this month. Ingo Metzmacher (whose photo appeared in this space last week miscaptioned “Louis Andriessen”; oops) led a performance of the Fifth as hot-blooded and indulgent as Alan Gilbert’s of the Ninth had been taut and controlled the week before. In the case of both conductors, theirs was the proper approach.

The Fifth, I know, is popular; it epitomizes Mahler’s prototypical neurosis. It embodies the Mahler of the Ken Russell movie, grotesque and hair-tearing, as gross an exaggeration of its central character as Amadeus of its. What little there is of genuine beauty is almost immediately betrayed; even the Adagietto, the very pretty slow movement, which every hater of Mahler clings to as the Great Exception, is perverted forthwith as its tunes are made to twist and turn in the ensuing finale. Mahler is said to have written the slow movement as a love note to Alma; it may have worked for her, but it doesn’t for me.

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I constantly re-read the late Lewis Thomas’ Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In 1982, in a world still obsessed with survival possibilities in an atomic age — 40 million? 80 million? — Dr. Thomas’ essential question seems to be whether, after those final notes of Mahler have died away, there is anything more in that world that mere human language can possibly express. I had taken the book down after hearing the Ninth, and it was still on my desk after the Fifth, which is perhaps why that work sounded so small this time.

Orchestral bloat even less admirable was inflicted upon a Royce Hall audience earlier that week by the visiting London Philharmonic Orchestra, with Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä substituting for the ailing Kurt Masur. Word from Minneapolis, where Vänskä has amassed a loyal fan club, made attendance seem worthwhile despite a so-so program and the LPO’s reputation as one of its hometown’s lesser ensembles; alas, disillusion reigned. It set in immediately, as the charming Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten’s boyhood was buried under the weight of the orchestra’s full string section, which then remained onstage to extend similar burial treatment to an early Mozart symphony. Music, if you can call it that, by Khachaturian and Strauss ensued. Maestro Vänskä’s podium antics are fun to watch, and bear a certain resemblance to musical exuberance in general, if less to that night’s program in particular.

Piano Forte

The news at the keyboard last week was bad, bad, super and super: cancellations by Murray Perahia and Martha Argerich, substitution by Ingrid Fliter, heroism on schedule by Jeffrey Kahane. As stand-in for Argerich, the Philharmonic hit it big in the svelte and elegant form of Argentina’s Ms. Fliter, proclaimed only weeks before winner of the solid-gold ($300,000) Gilmore Piano Award in exotic Kalamazoo. Perhaps Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto isn’t exactly the high-powered vehicle to show off an incoming pianist’s brain or muscle power. (She is also slated to play it at the Hollywood Bowl this summer.) Perhaps Charles Dutoit wasn’t exactly the most attuned conductor to accompany this important debut performance. (The Philharmonic’s Alexander Mickelthwate will do the job at the Bowl.) But young Ms. Fliter managed to charm the Disney audience, and the somewhat simple-minded concerto of Beethoven’s journeyman days as well. She is surely on her way.

Four Mozart piano concertos on a single program: Never mind the toll on Jeffrey Kahane, conducting these works from the piano in a single sitting; the glandular toll on an enthralled audience out front is also something to be taken seriously, something no amount of overpriced coffee or pastry in the Royce Hall lounge can counteract. Imagine, having to deal in a single night with that endless thread of single melody (a.k.a. “Elvira Madigan”) that forms the slow movement of the Concerto K. 467, only moments after that other sublime melodic thread, the clarinet solo in the slow movement of K. 488!

Yet another phenomenal reward of this series (which continues through the Chamber Orchestra’s next season, by the way, eventually including all 23 of Mozart’s actual original concertos) has been the wonders that come to light in the earlier works, before the great breaking-out of expressive mastery upon Mozart’s move to Vienna. An early work in B flat, K. 238, lay delightfully between two giants on last week’s program and gave off its own kinds of charm — most of all in some charming rampaging for horns in the finale. The writing for winds and horns in every one of these concertos, from the beginning, is one of the great joys in Mozart discovery. It is also one of the great strengths of our L.A. Chamber Orchestra.

The Palisades Are Alive

Two nights later, some of those same Chamber Orchestra musicians — notably clarinetist Gary Gray and French hornist Richard Todd — were at it again, making music up in the hills as members of Chamber Music Palisades, now in its ninth season at the attractive (if perhaps overly vibrant) St. Matthew’s Parish. Delores Stevens, pianist, teacher and musical prime mover on at least two coasts, is the series’ co-founder, along with LACO flutist Susan Greenberg. Last week’s program, which drew a near-capacity crowd, consisted of four works for which the overall description of “delicious” would not be excessive. Stevens was at the piano in all four. At intermission, there were cookies and hot apple juice.

Matters got under way with Todd and Stevens at joyous, rambunctious work in Beethoven’s little-known early Horn Sonata. One work was new: Peter Golub’s Threaded Dances, commissioned and played by Susan Greenberg — 10 or so most attractive minutes’ worth of quiet nocturnal music nicely full of California mountainside and fog. The program’s other surprise was the Sextet for piano and winds by Ludwig Thuille, a little-remembered contemporary of, say, Mahler and musically a closer clone of Brahms or, save the mark, the much-maligned Max Reger. Better than any of the above-named, this work showed a nice understanding of when to stop.

Best of all was the final work, the piano-wind Sextet by Francis Poulenc: wit, wisdom, sarcasm, tenderness, sheer delight; worth any drive up mountain roads. Hurrah, Palisades! Where have I been all those nine years??

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