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To Wonder, to Ponder 

Wednesday, May 10 2006
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Unfinished but Polished

One question immediately surfaced, as a near-capacity audience cheered itself hoarse at the sublime artistry of Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes, and the performers had run out of encores: Why aren’t there more concerts like this? Art-song programs, we are told, draw poorly; solo piano recitals, too, unless they’re performed by under-30 exotics — too much intelligence, too little fun. Here was refutation, a program that seemed to be motivated from first note to last by the love of music and of making music happen. It was planned, furthermore, with an uncommon outlay of imagination, with music by trustworthy composers, to be sure, but works mostly unfamiliar, some of it even mere fragments (more unfinished Schubert to pile onto the one symphony we already know).

And it was all fascinating, rewarding, a generous serving of music-making intelligence that also entailed a deep bow of respect to an obviously grateful audience. At the start there was Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, the first-ever linking by a composer of several songs into a continuous narration, thus the progenitor of song cycles by Schubert and Schumann. Later came a Schubert set, the three “Harper” songs from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, linked not so much by story as by mood. Then came a really fascinating clutch of Schubert bits: songs and piano pieces that Schubert had begun and then set aside unfinished, sometimes right up to the last couple of measures.

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Why? The pile of unfinished Schubert lives on to tantalize us: whole movements of symphonies, almost-whole movements that others have completed, reams of songs and other short pieces sometimes simply throbbing with beautiful ideas. Living on the edge, Schubert often may have had to set one project aside for a chance to score a little cash with another. Like any artist, he may have felt that he had painted himself into a corner for reasons only he could recognize. In any case, here was this bag of glistening fragments to light up the Disney Hall stage, and here were these supremely imaginative artists to delight themselves and tantalize us all with a glimpse inside. On his own, Andsnes performed the next-to-last Beethoven piano sonata (Opus 110) with such command of the forward momentum — most of all in the final, ecstatic pages of the concluding fugue — as to make that work, at least this once, seem the greatest of all the “32.” He could, in fact, be right.

. . . And Just Finished (for Now)

At approximately 11 p.m. on May Day, Marino Formenti sat at the piano in the Bing Theater at the County Museum to end his recital — which had begun about four hours before — with Palais de Mari, Morton Feldman’s last work for piano, composed 20 years before. Formenti’s American career had begun on that stage in 2000, in a concert that concluded with a jaw-dropping performance of the Sonata by Jean Barraqué, a work widely regarded as unplayable. Now he was back to usher out the Monday Evening Concerts, the series that had given him and countless other torchbearers for contemporary and other adventurous music their first platform — here in Los Angeles and, in many cases, the world.

Formenti had planned this final concert as an “Homage” to the Monday Evening Concerts, and he offered a full menu: an “hors d’oeuvre” of Ives, Cowell, Schoenberg and the gang; contemporary inscrutables, including Salvatore Sciarrino and a Nam June Paik number that demanded an amplified violin dragged across the concrete floor. For dessert, there was a clutch of Boulez’s Notations and an elegant jazzy bit by the MEC’s late mastermind, Dorrance Stalvey. The smiling countenances of John Cage and Igor Stravinsky hovered close overhead.

Feldman’s exquisite half-hour of rippling near silences filled the hall like a benevolent emanation. Formenti had invited anyone who wanted to, to come onstage, sit on a chair or spread across the floor, to hang out at this ludicrously unnecessary event, suspending a series that had begun on a Silver Lake rooftop in 1939 and gone far to establish this city as a firm mover of serious musical creativity. The Monday Evening Concerts (which began as “Evenings on the Roof”) have been obliged to move before. Already a committee to assure their continuance has scheduled concerts in Zipper Concert Hall downtown on February 19, March 19 and April 16, 2007; one of those concerts will be curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Stay tuned.

Notes in Transit

In New York last week, I thoroughly enjoyed the newly revised Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s razor-edge intensity greatly sharpened by the staging, in which cast principals also serve as orchestra. Patti LuPone’s Mrs. Lovett is so vivid and original a creation that I can finally forgive her Evita; Michael Cerveris, the Sweeney, wipes out any previous image I might have had of that role. Next night, as it happened, I succumbed to friends’ longtime urging and looked in on The Light in the Piazza, which I found admirable for very much the same reasons: a show brought down to manageable size in a kind of chamber-music conception — small pit band, small chorus, splendid sense of ensemble. Adam Guettel’s music is the best new theatrical score I’ve heard since . . . well, since the original Sweeney Todd, and that goes back a long way. I left the theater thinking that if André Previn, for example, had been wiser, this is how he should have set A Streetcar Named Desire: something close to the emotions in the play, rather than all that garbage in the orchestra pit.

And on the subject of garbage, my other night in New ?York was spent at Juilliard, which was celebrating its centennial with a proudly commissioned brand-new opera by an alum: Lowell Liebermann’s misbegotten mishmash raked ?out of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. It’s depressing ?to discover how this kind of cliché-ridden pseudo-modernism can earn the fond embrace of the well-fed trustee, yesterday at the Metropolitan Opera (American Tragedy) or today ?with this piece of claptrap out of Liebermann. It’s enough ?to make you want to head back to Monteverdi and start all over again.

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