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Not With a Whimper 

Another memorable Monday

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008
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It was good to hear Earl Kim's music again; I knew him at Berkeley in the late '40s, when I had the job of working the Music Department's only tape recorder and he was already composing deep, dark, moving songs, from which I learned much. Susan Narucki sang his Exercises en Route at the Monday Evening Concert (to begin with a bang what, you gotta admit, was a terrific week for us new-music folks). These are settings of long passages from Samuel Beckett — not so much poems as murky lights that suddenly come on beneath some of his pages. These are songs beyond wonderment; it is as if poet and musician, a continent apart and both in days not far from their last, seem — as Paul Griffiths suggests in an eloquent program note — "to have recognized a companion."

Anyway, it was time to hear Earl's deep, dark, wonderfully intelligent songs; now it's time for our orchestra to look at his Violin Concerto. It bears the curse of being written for a public virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman, but I remember it as being better than that. Narucki, whom I've been admiring for years and never get to write about, has blossomed into a strong-voiced, intelligent singer. Keep her around. This, I am delighted to keep on saying, was a beautifully planned and presented Monday Evening Concert, worthy of the tradition, and well attended, as it deserved. Let it also be noted that except for the visiting star singer, the performing forces were all local. Hurrah for us!!

Opera IrresistibleI had been holding off on the new entertainment in town, the live-opera telecasts from the Metropolitan Opera in HD-Television in movie theaters. I had my reasons: 10 a.m. is no proper time for opera-going; I have my DVDs at home and a decent flat screen, blah blah. Saturday morning, I let myself be taken by a friend to Verdi's Macbeth at a theater nearby, and wow! I'll admit we had extra-good seats; Lady Macbeth (Maria Guleghina) went bonkers practically in my lap. But there is the technology for a damned exciting and serious musical experience, and what I saw this first time was an exciting production of an opera I had almost forgotten about, on an amazingly clear screen.

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What I missed, especially in this work, was someone on the screen handing out information about, say, Verdi's two versions of Macbeth and how this one was drawn from some of each. Some of the chat during pauses and at the intermission was cued to an operaphile's lowest intelligence. (By the same token, I would need to know about next week's Tristan und Isolde here at the Music Center, in which there will inevitably be cuts, as always in Wagner. Where? By how much?) As opera becomes the latest show at your neighborhood 12-plex, where it looks and sounds terrific, something of that noble caring, I fear, will be lost. Am I the only one to care?

Brave New TrashThe "Concrete Frequency" concerts, at least the "classical" programs — and how that term has endured a beating this past week! — ended with a bang with two brain-rattling programs, each repeated, over four days, admirably stocked with works that defy easy description, to you or even to myself. Let me try.

Luciano Berio's Sequenza for solo trumpet (Gabriele Cassone) welled up out of darkness to begin the first of these concerts — a reminder, I suppose, of the days when it was safe to make solo music on city streets. That reminder was reinforced by a segue into the marvels of Charles Ives' Central Park in the Dark, a full panorama of what that magical space afforded, circa 1906. (A low bow here also to preconcert lecturer Robert Fink, whose presentation of this piece was especially vivid.) There were those who found reason to exult over Morton Feldman's exasperating, little Turfan Fragments; I was not of their number.

The three dots at both ends of Pierre Boulez's ...explosante-fixe..., which began the next program, already signify that the work, like so many of his, is or was a cumulative work, compiled from an initial impulse dating back to 1971, the time of Igor Stravinsky's death, with other musical motives later added, inspired by the deaths of others and so on. This has been Boulez's way, and along that way he has produced music of exceptional beauty (if, at times, staggering complexity). That, it seems to me, is what you really need to know about a work like this. Three solo flutists front the orchestra and combine their playing into an insistent musical motto. They are backed by an ensemble of mostly winds and brass, just a couple of strings, and Emmanuelle Ophele's MIDI flute, in a 37-minute dense and fascinating conversation. At the end, the texture thins out; we begin to hear the sounds of a small wind ensemble such as Mozart might recognize. Then the winds hold a single note, an E flat. That, in European terminology, is the note "Es," or the letter "S" for "Stravinsky," and we come out aware that we have been guided, masterfully and beautifully, by the Philharmonic under David Robertson, conductor visiting and valuable, toward that goal.

Came intermission; a screen dropped down, and many more players joined the orchestra. The last of all the works in this minifestival examining the relation of music and city — a gloriously cynical choice, so don't think about it — was the collaboration of filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon in Dystopia, a musical film about urban trash, brand-new and commissioned by the Philharmonic. In Decasia, their previous work (available on DVD), these guys created a lyrical, spooky rhapsody out of visual fragments of ancient, decayed film. Their source this time, for Dystopia, is real action stuff, of trash under treatment in various Los Angeles yareds: on moving belts as workers salvage usable items, in great truckloads of construction debris being dumped into oblivion. Again their visual material has been cut to a great tingler of a score that, somehow, comes across as the finest musical recapturing of a trash truck in action that ever was. Ever.

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