As the Towers Fall 

Brett Dean's viola concertos and remembering the classical room at Tower Records

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006

A Broken Vow

Brett Dean and his music burst rather politely upon the local scene over the past two weeks. Australia born, with several seasoning years as a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic and now a full-time composer back home, Dean produces a kind of internationally amiable music, which is not at all bad. At Disney Hall he came on with a viola concerto, with himself as the able soloist, that lists the Philharmonic as co-commissioner. Viola concertos are not that common; there is a beautiful, dark-hued one by Walton that this new work is qualified to stand beside. Dean’s makes itself known in a soft, understated sort of way, and rises to a fair amount of hurly-burly in its middle movement. It has nothing to do with Australia: no koalas or birdcalls.

These — the birdcalls, anyway — came closer to the surface a few nights later in a Green Umbrella concert, all-Australian, that included not-so-amiable music by Dean, a “Pastoral” Symphony like none other, in which aggregations of native birds compete with the sounds of contemporary industrialized life, and not too happily. Composed in 2001 for Germany’s Ensemble Modern, the piece makes a stunning transition from soulful to soulless and quite overshadowed everything else on this remarkable program. A pair of radiantly alive piano improvs by the 26-year-old whiz-bang composer Anthony Pateras and some aimless note-spinning by Liza Lim (whose music continues to go nowhere with local audiences) completed the evening.

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Esa-Pekka Salonen began the Philharmonic’s program with a spirited dash through Haydn’s “Bear” Symphony and a crackerjack romp through the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, a work I had, not long ago, vowed never to hear again but which, thanks to Donald Green’s red-hot trumpet, I heard with something close to rapture.

Discomania Revisited

Tower Records is gone, and nostalgia stalks the land. The first record store that ever engaged my time and my money was a small hole-in-the-wall across from Boston’s Symphony Hall. My pals Normie and Eddie and I would hike over after school, and the owner, a bustling little guy about the size of his cigar, would let us play some of his records so long as our hands were clean. His name was Jack Levinson, and his own favorite was a 10-inch 78-rpm disc of Heifetz playing “Hora Staccato,” and so we left every day with that thing buzzing in our ears. I bought my first album there: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony, on six Victor Black Label discs. Victor had just lowered the price on some of its older 78s, from a dollar to 75 cents, and that gave birth to a new generation of collectors.

After college I moved to New York, and two doors down from my fifth-floor walkup was the Record Collectors’ Exchange, which became my next haunt. This wasn’t much larger than Jack Levinson’s, but it was crammed with really rare stuff — discs from France, from Eastern Europe, used copies of recordings long discontinued. The cigar smoke was even thicker here, and so was the lingo. People would brag about finding a particularly choice item, “gold label.” If the record label was printed with gold ink, that meant it was a prewar pressing, better-quality shellac; that also meant, of course, that Herman Lemberg would mark it up to twice the original price. I always suspected that some of those guys didn’t even own phonographs; it was the collecting impulse, not the music, that drove everybody into that smoke-filled room on West 48th Street. But that was what we knew as a record store, and its graduates went on to run the other hangout shops of the ’50s and ’60s: Will Lerner’s Music Masters on 43rd Street, Joe Greenspan’s Discophile in the Village, and let us shed a tear for Alfred Leonard’s Gramophone Shop on Wilshire — snob shops where the educated clerks wouldn’t allow you to buy a recorded performance they considered below par.

Technology spelled the doom. Starting with the LP in 1948, exploding with hi-fi and tape and stereo and the War of the Speeds — brought on by RCA’s absurd insistence that its 45s were equal to the 33s as a medium for symphony and opera — the great connoisseur medium of bygone days became accessible, inexpensive and amazingly all-inclusive. At the Record Collectors’ Exchange, you could perhaps find one or two Bach cantatas, or early Haydn symphonies, on some obscure European label at some exorbitant price; now the whole Haydn or Bach canon came in duplicate abundance.

The first time I walked into the classical branch of Tower Records in West Hollywood — not many hours after first arriving in Los Angeles in, I think, 1979 — I experienced a feeling exactly the same as at my first sight of the Grand Canyon: exhilaration tempered with helplessness (so much space, so little me). By the mid-’80s, you could paw through maybe 75 versions of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, with nobody behind the counter — except perhaps a couple of haggling Maria Callas queens — to offer guidance. As someone who, perhaps misguidedly, still nourishes a certain affection for classical music, I have increasingly found the experience of being in the presence of classical merchandising nothing short of appalling. My list is long: placement of classical departments in stores where the sounds of pop feed through, ignorant labeling in the few bins that remain, an inability among personnel to muster even a blank stare in response to a request for information.

As with most people I know, ordering discs by mail order has been the solution to the collecting dilemma since the first signs of collapse appeared in the Towers. There is a small part of me, however, that responds to the experience of getting my hands on some object possibly worth the cherish, and then rushing home to see if I was right. One place remains to afford me that pleasure: the music room of Doug Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood. It’s small, but somebody has chosen the merchandise with great taste, and is on hand to talk about it. It is, in other words, what a record store could be, used to be, ought to be — minus the cigar smoke, that is.

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