Bang on Your Ear

Photo by Peter Serling

Into the Future

New York has its Bang on a Can; we have our California EAR Unit: daredevil small ensembles dedicated to what-the-hell -service to whatever new music, of whatever provenance (and the more challenging the better), that happens to cross their line of sight. By the nature of the beast, both groups present concert programs heavily resonant with overtones of futility. But these are the ensembles — most major cities support at least one such group, either out on their own or based at a school — that offer the best hope for music’s future. The percentage of bad music to good may be high at these concerts — as it surely was at new-music concerts in 1904 and 1804 as well as all years in between — but all that really matters is that it all gets to be heard, at least once.

Both groups were active on our stages last week: the EAR Unit starting its 18th (!) season in residence at LACMA, the Bang on a Can All-Stars in town for a one-night stand at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Both programs had their downside; each was redeemed by one special short work well worth the carfare. The EAR Unit played Eve Beglarian’s Cave, a 10-or-so-minute work of great delicacy and charm, inspired — so the composer tells us — by conversations she’s been having, on the subject of souls, with a 6-year-old friend. On a program with its share of showoff and overstuffed pieces — including one that dragged a bunch of full-size bicycles onto the stage for percussion effects that a few normal orchestral gadgets could just as easily have provided in far less space — this one shapely, expressive piece, at just the right length, was the one to remember.

On the Bang on a Can program there was a tight, tense, glorious rumpus of a piece called Workers Union, one of the great Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s early experiments with indeterminacy — in this case, everything specified except the actual pitches. This, once again, was the one piece to remember and take home: 10 minutes or so of on-the-chest pounding that you never wanted to stop. The nostalgia buffs turned out to whoop themselves hoarse for Philip Glass, the evening’s "special guest." He arrived with two large chunks of More of the Same, which seemed to gladden a few hearts but not all. Glass was also alone onstage to play a bunch of his Piano Etudes, music so amateurishly fashioned (think Yanni for beginners) that I’ve never understood how he let them off his worktable.

Voices United

The Philharmonic’s "Silenced Voices" observances, music by composers proscribed — and, in some cases, murdered — by Nazis, came to a quiet, moving end at the first of this season’s Chamber Music Society concerts which have moved this season to Disney from their more intimate venue at the University of Judaism. Two of the works, both handsome and deeply moving beyond the matter of their history, were actually composed during imprisonment at Theresienstadt: the Third String Quartet of Viktor Ullmann and a Fantasy and Fugue, also for quartet, by Gideon Klein. Both works have been recorded, by the way, on Koch Classics. The stylistic differences between the two are also interesting: Ullmann, very much a musical descendant of Janácek; Klein, just as clearly touched by Schoenbergian atonality. That makes all the more poignant the tragedy of these composers’ loss — and that of Erwin Schulhoff, whose wonderful use of jazz turned up in other works in the Philharmonic series; these were composers with something strong and original on their minds, and the course of 20th-century music would surely have been altered by their survival.

On the matter of Disney Hall, conscience dictates that I pursue further the vagaries of my shifting outlook on that massive pipe organ, which, obviously, is not going to go away anytime soon. My distaste for pipe organs in general, and for all but a notable if minuscule percentage of their repertory, brought the expected response, including one published letter a couple of weeks ago whose writer obviously knows nothing about how the instruments are constructed and what they do. But now I have to confess that on Halloween night, the hall’s management gave it over to a revival of that hoar-encrusted silent-movie masterpiece, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera (the one with Lon Chaney and all the teeth), and it was stupendous. Clark Wilson was on hand to use the pipe organ in exactly the right way, with tremolos and crashes; you’d think old Rudolph Wurlitzer himself was up on the stage pulling the stops. The score was the classic Gaylord Carter concoction, with lots of Gounod’s Faust stirred in to go with the Paris Opera setting: a perfect match. Eat yer heart out, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Time and Truth

Musica Angelica has progressed from a well-intended gathering of early-music enthusiasts to a serious and important early-music ensemble, the best of its kind in these parts. Michael Eagan, the group’s co-founder and music director, died suddenly this past summer, and while this was a blow to all who knew him and admired his founder’s zeal, his passing marks a milestone. The orchestra’s horizons in the past couple of years have notably broadened; this has been borne out by the presence here of major conductors, including Britain’s Harry Bicket and Germany’s Martin Haselböck. The latter has now been appointed music director effective September 2005. (He is also scheduled as one of Disney Hall’s organ recitalists, on February 20.)

On a recent weekend, Haselböck led the orchestra and a vocal group in a Handel rarity well worth the revivalist zeal, the composer’s first oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth, composed during his Italian sojourn some years before his conquest of London. The work comes three decades before Messiah, and it shows. The text is a long — very long, at times — sequence of metaphors, in which the characters of Beauty, Pleasure, Truth and Time argue for moral supremacy; by the time nearly three hours pass, nobody much cares. The elegance of the music, mingled with moments of radiant beauty, makes full amends; that beauty was underscored by the clear, woodsy sound of violins under a baroque bow and the delicate hooting of Haselböck’s small positiv organ. The singers, strangely got up in plastic wrap, were several notches above okay: Katerina Beranova as Beauty, Catherine Webster as Pleasure, countertenor Jason Snyder as Truth, Gerald Gray as Time. Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, the orchestra’s treasurable concertmaster, made the passage of Time all the more Triumphant.


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