Earthly and Heavenly Delights
Earlier this month, the Philharmonic ended its Disney Hall season with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, music as familiar to me as the oldest shoe in my closet. I don’t wear that shoe anymore, yet I went to the concert with some eagerness. I thought this elderly and well-worn work might fare interestingly, perhaps even well, in young hands, those of the Philharmonic’s associate conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate — newly upgraded from assistant — and I also thought the rest of the program was sure to make me feel neither elderly nor well-worn. I was right on all counts.
It’s easy enough to groan, “Oh, not Scheherazade again,” although it is not, surprisingly, on this summer’s upcoming Hollywood Bowl program (a first?). You may groan, instead, for “Oh no, not the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto,” or “the Mendelssohn Violin,” and nobody will argue against granting a deserved sabbatical to these and similar portions of the standard Bowl repertory (“slushpump,” as the eloquent Martin Bernheimer used to describe it ad nauseam). Actually, a couple of big novelties in this summer’s programming might be worth your attention even without the catered dinner to help ease them down. One is the grand, noisy but rare Funereal and Triumphal Symphony by Hector Berlioz on August 3; the other I’ll get to in a moment.
Scheherazade, cleanly and forcefully set forth by the orchestra under the excellent Mickelthwate, with Martin Chalifour’s solo violin as narrator, reminded me that I hadn’t listened to it in a very long time — really listened, I mean, to its remarkable orchestral effects. The big ones, the grand clamors of brass and cymbals, are immediately dazzling; so, however, are the small ones, the tiny pinpoints from the piccolos, the muted trumpets, the vast display of pure orchestral iridescence. It made me wonder how many other pieces out of the slushpump I’ve been unjustly only half-hearing lately. I must try to go to the Bowl this summer with cleaner ears. (No promises, of course.)
Starting off the Mickelthwate program were the marvelous Le Boeuf sur le Toit of Darius Milhaud — Charlie Chaplin set to music — and the grand pomposity of Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, to my mind the best of all doomed attempts to combine the grandeur of the pipe organ with orchestral forces (strings and timpani only, wisely, in this case). Vincent Dubois was the organist.
One may suspect, in this slender young German-born conductor, a flair for the rambunctious French between-the-wars repertory; so far he has given us splendid, richly idiomatic readings of two works of Milhaud and now this one of Poulenc. It’s a repertory in danger, far better than the small number of performances nowadays suggests. (When was the last time you let Honegger’s La Danse des Morts make your hair stand on end?) Some of it kicks up heels as delightfully as Le Boeuf sur le Toit, with its deep and saucy obeisances to American ragtime and burlesque. There is also a passionate, oratorical side with religious overtones. Poulenc’s organ concerto knows its place within ecclesiastical architecture — its opening summonings tell us as much — but within that setting it behaves like a piece of music, with a beginning, a climax and a proper end. Its scoring, without winds or brass, holds it apart from the pietistic goo of Saint-Saëns or Strauss. As you’ve suspected, I don’t like organ music much (at least from after 1750); Poulenc’s concerto, that work virtually alone (alongside, perhaps, Lou Harrison’s), keeps the instrument respectable.
One small ritual I always carry out when in Washington, D.C., is to visit a small cranny in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folk Art Museum, whose permanent installation bears the title The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. In 1950, William Hampton, a handyman at the museum, was visited by the Virgin Mary and several angels, who commanded him to build a Throne of a grandeur worthy of that title. This he proceeded to do over the next 14 years, assembling found objects (discarded light bulbs, junk of all shapes, a barber’s chair to serve as throne, chandeliers, you-name-it). He covered everything in gold or silver foil and assembled it all on a platform that Smithsonian authorities had allotted him. You stand in front of this assemblage, and it strikes you (or does me, at least) that you are facing the entirety of a man’s life, his hopes, his beliefs. I find my visits to Mr. Hampton’s life enormously moving. You can do it all now on Google, of course, but it’s better if you’re there. There aren’t that many honest things in Washington anymore.
Several writers have created books of poems and essays inspired by William Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven, and now there is music. A 32-year-old composer named Jefferson Friedman, born in Swampscott, Massachusetts, has written an orchestral piece bearing the same full title. Leonard Slatkin gave it its premiere with his Washington National Symphony last year, and he has it on a Hollywood Bowl program on September 14. Sharing — let’s say “profaning” — the program is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Just be careful to park where you can leave at intermission.
Colorblindness: Several friends of the late György Ligeti have questioned my citing his mention of designer Calvin Klein, in my last week’s farewell, as the formulator of a particular shade of blue. That was on the transcript I was given, but a visit to the original tape — which I should have done before — revealed the name as the painter Yves Klein. My apologies all around, to the great spirit of Ligeti, and to Clan Klein.?
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