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Spinal Column 

Wednesday, May 17 2006
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The Only Other Music

György Ligeti’s Requiem first makes itself known in your lower spine, moves overpoweringly upward and explodes into full awareness. Deep, dark harmonies resound from the low voices in the two interwoven choirs, further colored by the orchestra’s most solemn contingent; they form a dense web whose very lack of compass stops the breath. Now and then a peal of brighter brass shatters the mysterious trombone and bassoon sonorities; the chorus and the two vocal soloists warn of the Day of Wrath. There is no other music quite like this extraordinary summoning from this greatest of living composers — nothing I can name that so totally, so insidiously exerts so firm a hold over a willing listener.

At the 1965 Stockholm premiere, a critic wrote, “For a while, all other music seemed impossible.” I would change the quotation: “All other music but one seemed impossible.” The “other music” that night was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as it was again at Disney Hall last week, the only “other music” that can stand next to that awesome darkness and gather the strength to begin again. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance of that symphony went some distance to reveal, and then to dispel, that darkness.

click to enlarge Composer Gyrgy Ligeti (Photo by Betty Freeman)
  • Composer Gyrgy Ligeti (Photo by Betty Freeman)

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Some distance, that is. To these ears, Salonen’s conception of this most problematic of the Beethoven Nine suffers from one basic misconception: a tendency to drive emphatically forward toward the big, grandiose choral finale but to devote less weight of expression to the far more complex first movement — which to me is the greatest of all Beethoven’s symphonic movements. Time and again in last week’s performance I waited for a shaping of phrase in the first movement, a recognition of remarkable melodic outgrowth in those irresistible gatherings of strength. It simply did not happen. Someday mastery will come; some of Salonen’s Beethoven in this year’s series has been not only promising but truly remarkable — No. 4, for example — measured against his past performances.

We live in hope. The musician who could re-create the incredible intensity of this imponderable Ligeti masterwork — the violent contrasts, the frenzy and the immobility, the half-hour’s immersion in the workings of sheer genius (drawn from the Philharmonic, the Master Chorale, and vocal soloists Caroline Stein and Jill Grove) — is entitled to a little extra time to work on his Beethoven.

Unsuk Heroes, Reynolds Rap

Ever larger looms the name of Korea’s Unsuk Chin. Rumors persist that her Alice in Wonderland opera, which Kent Nagano conducts in Munich next season, still heads here eventually, as does her fabulous (but murderously difficult) Violin Concerto. Her reputation as a master of musical jokes and wordplay is already known here, and at last week’s Green Umbrella, her Cantatrix Sopranica provided 26 minutes of sheer delirium along those lines. It is a piece for singers (three) about singing: vocalises, language jokes, a delightful dig at Chinese-through-the-nose, some passionate Italianate nonsense. Beyond all that, the piece is wondrously virtuosic: two sopranos and a countertenor in exact coordination through demanding roulades and cadenzas. The music is both enchantingly pretty and wickedly to the point. Sopranos Caroline Stein and Hila Plitmann and countertenor Paul Flight made up the chorus of would-be nightingales; Alexander Mickelthwate conducted.

Sharing the program was Roger Reynolds of UC San Diego, whose Center for Musical Experiment has given us commendable multimedia works in many stripes, some of them grateful to eye and ear. Illusion, alas, proved congenial to neither. Commissioned by a handful of big-name foundations, and given here in its world premiere, the work did serve to illuminate one aspect of Disney Hall I hadn’t noticed before. The sightlines are such that you get a clear view of people walking out early from anywhere in the hall. Mr. Reynolds’ work lasted, I am told, 70 minutes; I joined the procession at minute 51. Salonen conducted, and therefore was stuck with the whole thing.

Illusion purports to tell of the run-up to the Trojan War, with texts adapted from Aeschylus and Euripides, spoken or sung or otherwise hurled at an ensemble of brass, percussion and piano performing rather thuddy music. The multimedia bit has to do with singers and actors (whom I leave unnamed, out of kindness) moving from one music stand to another onstage. At the intermission before the piece, there was a sound installation in the lobby with more of the Reynolds score. Wherever I wandered, however, it was well drowned out by conversation, mostly about the pleasures of the Unsuk Chin piece.

All in a Night’s Work

Life in 2006 is a big, gleaming round of one all-Mozart celebration after the other — as, for example, the one that ended the Jacaranda concert season last weekend. Some of it traced familiar ground: Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the “Exsultate” motet, the Flute and Harp Concerto. You might have dismissed the concerto from your anticipation: No. 299 in the Köchel Catalog, out of 626, means it’s an early work, immature, maybe not worth serious listening. The first movement, up-and-down, tonic-dominant, fits these expectations, except that the Jacaranda people devised a cute cadenza, with quotes from Mozart’s other “flute” work, the “magic” one.

But then came the slow movement, with its soft, tentative first phrases and then, out of nowhere, an episode that soars toward sublimity, a conversation of deep import, compounded of sequences of the most heartbreaking harmonies. Suddenly there is the very young Mozart, baring his own inmost thoughts and engaging ours in the process. Mozart does that to people.

The performers — soprano Maria Lazarova, flutist Pamela Vliek, harpist Maria Casale and the Denali Quartet — represented Jacaranda in full blossom. Like the Monday Evening Concerts of comparable value, the series has been rendered temporarily homeless — not this time out of managerial chicanery, but for repairs to Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian that will take about a year. Next concert: a “Pan-American Marathon” in a Deco setting, November 4 in Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High.

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