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Ripe, Rare, Romantic 

Kids today have outgrown Hansel and Gretel. They need Salome.

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
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Out of Mothballs

Large-scale chamber works by Gabriel Fauré, I would have thought, might comfortably rest on one of the less accessible shelves in my musical larder, their presence acknowledged from afar. After succumbing to the absolute enchantment of one of these works, the C-minor Piano Quintet, at a recent Philharmonic Chamber Music Society concert, I rushed home to discover that yes, I did indeed own a recording of this remarkable score — along with the earlier D-minor Quintet — but that the disc, at least 15 years old and long out of print, had sat there gathering dust, never even unwrapped. Mine the shame.

There is much beguilement in Fauré: the songs, some charmers for piano, above all the Requiem, which is best heard by candlelight in a recording (there are two) conducted by Nadia Boulanger. The power in this 30-minute quintet, composed three years before the composer’s death, is a different language: an earnest, mysterious oratory, a brief and hilarious romp, a dark and somber meditation, and a final exultant resolution. At Disney, where some chamber works seem adrift in all that space, Fauré, of all people, filled the hall. Thomas Adès was the pianist; you have to assume that he hears a kindred voice in this music, however far from his own. Even more remarkable is the way the special pleading in his playing managed to motivate the rest of the ensemble, above all the very young Johnny Lee, whose violin sang most eloquently.

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All told, a chamber concert nicely planned. Music by Jean Françaix began it, another French romantic, perhaps more deserving of his earned obscurity but a sweet charmer in his perky, neo-cancan fashion. Midway there was Steven Stucky’s Nell’ombra, Nella Luce, which, despite its Italian title, seemed quite French in its charming interplay of “light” and “dark” music. The music dates from 2000 and, to confound the Latin origins one step further, was first performed by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Against other works by Stucky that I greatly admire for their honesty and marvelous clarity, I find the Nell’ombra music of lesser substance. My memory of the concert resides, in surprise and delight, with the great work of Fauré.

Basic Bass

At the Philharmonic last weekend there was John Harbison’s not-quite-brand-new Concerto for Bass Viol (Double Bass to you) and Orchestra, and the orchestra’s own first bassist Dennis Trembly to do winning battle with its intricacies. Harbison is an old friend, although we once had more of his music — orchestral, vocal, chamber — than we’ve had lately. Dawn Upshaw sings his songs, and renders them gorgeous.

The new piece, I’m saddened to report, is of a lesser order. It is riddled with gadgetry, almost as if the composer had taken a box of “Handy Things You Can Do With a Double Bass” and scattered them through a very lazy orchestral texture. Perhaps John Harbison believes that is all you can do with a double bass, but I don’t believe that for a second, and there are too many players around, on both sides of the “serious”-“pop” divide, to make that stick. (See you at Charlie Haden’s concert tonight, December 1, at REDCAT?)

There are, indeed, all the tricks, and they are impressive. Dennis Trembly draws an expressive, long melody (properly marked “lamento”) out of his handsome instrument to start things off. Later on, there are some gorgeous, crackling displays of pizzicato. All as expected: You can’t have a bass viol on a stage and not expect a long melody here and a shower of pizzicato there. Mr. Harbison, at least, knows the territory. It’s sad that he stayed within its borders.

The Seventh Symphony of Antonin Dvorák was the evening’s great music, as it is whenever it appears. I seem to hear more and more often, to my ever-increasing satisfaction, the expressed sentiment that this is the greatest of all romantic symphonies, the one most deeply emotional, most beautifully shaped. Perhaps the continued availability of the venerable Giulini performance, one of the expressive miracles of all recordings (the two-disc set on EMI with the London Philharmonic, not the more recent Royal Philharmonic version), has helped spread the word.

More the pity, then, that the Philharmonic’s guest conductor, Carlos Kalmar, worked in so many ways to distort the power of this marvelous symphony: ignoring the specified repeats in both first and third movements, dragging down hard on expressive retards, driving the brass so brutally that you’d think you were back in the Chandler Pavilion. Maestro Kalmar’s vita boasts of mittel-europäisches blood, and his affectionate readings of some Janácek operatic excerpts at the start of the program, proved he had some. It seemed to have run out too soon.

The Big Sleep

A granddad behind a sandwich at the Music Center last Sunday was overheard bragging that he had attended 34 operas and slept through them all, and I suddenly understood why Hansel and Gretel remains in favor. Inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that afternoon, I heard no delighted cheers — not very much, even, in the way of applause. The response from the middle-size audience was, let’s say, dutiful, especially that of the very well-behaved junior members respectfully fulfilling their elders’ notion of a proper musical upbringing.

The funny animals, Maurice Sendak–inspired, with flashing eyes and all that stuff, were supposed to represent the “14 angels” of the famous Prayer. I counted only 12, and they drew so little response that I assumed that most of the kids had the same toys at home. Director-designer Douglas Fitch created a camouflage-fabric forest that came apart and came back together and looked merely ugly. Last year I expressed the desire to bundle up Lucy Schaufer, the Cherubino in Figaro, and install her among my own art treasures. At the risk of raising eyebrows, I must confess that my desire waxes hotter after her Hansel, if only to rescue her from the authentic agony the insipidity of this opera instills. I have interviewed enough 10-year-olds (as recently as this past Thanksgiving) to know that kids today have outgrown Hansel and Gretel. They need Salome.

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