Ending at the Beginning
TIMIDLY PLANNED, HANDSOMELY EXECUTED, the Philharmonic's "Schoenberg Prism" ended a couple of weeks ago with the one work most likely to draw cheers, the early Transfigured Night -- originally a sextet but later expanded by the composer for string orchestra. To these ears, the music makes a stronger impact in the original chamber version, the more so if you consider the Richard Dehmel poem -- two lovers in self-confession mode on a moonlit landscape -- that inspired it. (Join me in mourning the passing of the marvelous old Hollywood String QuartetPlus recording, available until recently on the Testament label.) Esa-Pekka Salonen's performance, with the Philharmonic's full string complement, was moving enough, even if the moonbeams seemed to come from high-voltage transformers -- as did John de Lancie's feverish, overstressed reading of the Dehmel poem (with "SHOWN-berg" mispronounced in his intro) before the music began. From Martin Chalifour's solo violin and Evan Wilson's viola, however, you could hear genuine moonlight.
Pre-Schoenberg Schoenberg, pre-Mahler Mahler: I don't know if this was the impulse in planning the program, but it made an interesting juxtaposition. Mahler's Das klagende Lied was given complete, music begun at the tender age of 18, later drastically cut back, then partially restored, here presented in a conflation of first, second and third thoughts as edited by Reinhold Kubik and first performed in 1997. Mahler's text is vintage German folk tale both grisly and Grimm -- murder, betrayal, revenge, the works. Held captive in my seat for its hourlong duration -- lacking center aisles, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is virtually escape-proof -- I heard the work as a progression of embryonic Mahlerisms, and longed for an editor's pencil to correct clunky turns of phrase that the composer, in his time of later greatness, would himself have suppressed.
Yet some purpose is served, I suppose, in rubbing the noses of mature composers in the deeds of their youth. However wide the gap between the 25-year-old Schoenberg's Transfigured Night of 1899 and, say, his Fourth Quartet of 37 years later, we learn from the earlier work that its composer landed in the musical world on both feet, as Mahler did not. Yet the Mahler, with Salonen's yeoman feat in marshaling its massed chorus, oversize orchestra (including a whole 'nother band out in the corridor) and enough vocal soloists to staff a fair-size opera company, did in its own elephantine way offer some prophecy of future greatness. Among the soloists there were two small members of the Tölzer Boys' Choir, Masters Philipp Nowotny and Peter Mair, who sang the music of the flute that has been made of the bone of the murdered brother who -- you get the idea -- with such strength and right-on accuracy that after the concert I was surprised to find the building's masonry still intact.
NO MASONRY IS SAFE, FOR THAT MATTER, in the presence of Evelyn Glennie, who came to the Philharmonic a week later to unleash her familiar bang-up skills on Joseph Schwantner's 1992 Percussion Concerto. She's an incredible sight, this barefoot Scots lass, dashing up- and downstage from one pile of hardware to another, whomping here, jiggling there. She's a press agent's dream, for her show-biz virtuosity and also for the way her well-known affliction -- profound deafness since childhood -- is dealt with on her Web site in double talk that both admits and refutes. She's real, a media miracle . . .
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. . . or would be, but for one problem. For all her claims to a place in the serious-concert world -- commissioned scores including (!) 43 concertos, Grammys up the bazooty, TV documentaries and symposiums -- I haven't yet come across anything from her percussion-plus-orchestra repertory that justifies these claims. The Schwantner concerto is a case in point. At its core there's a 20-minute, serviceable, not unattractive three-movement score for full orchestra, out of the same academic bone yard as John Harbison's The Most Often Used Chords, which preceded it on the program here. On the edge, almost as a separate piece to be played simultaneously, there's this ongoing hullabaloo for the percussionist, which serves mostly to distract the attention from the less-interesting other stuff. I hear this same dichotomy throughout the Glennie repertory, including the James MacMillan Veni, Veni Emmanuel that she played here a few years ago, with its extra layer of affected religiosity. Music for percussion -- alone, or at least out front -- has its place, and there are works by Bartók, Harrison, Cage and other blithe spirits to prove that. Glennie's place -- and I wish her all the fun she can find there -- is outside this mainstream, a greatly attractive diversion to take your mind off the matter at hand. But dammit, she's such fun to watch!
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who conducted, had his moment after intermission, in an altogether splendid performance of Dvorák's Seventh Symphony. You've probably read me on this work before; it is, I'll admit, an obsession. Its forebear is basic Brahms, but the setting -- the wonderful orchestral language with the soft shimmer of strings and the glistening winds and solo horn that pierce the Middle European murk; the shifts of harmony (at the end of the slow movement, for one instance of many) that turn your bones to jelly -- stands apart, and above, anything in the Brahmsian orchestral legacy. The sublime conductor of this music, in my time anyhow, was Carlo Maria Giulini; my bones still quiver from a performance he gave, same orchestra, same stage, in the early 1980s. (The older Giulini recording, with the London Philharmonic on EMI, captures this sublimity but with a lesser orchestra; his later one, with Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw, is afflicted with an excess of the solemnity of his late years.) Harth-Bedoya came admirably close to the Giulini spirit. I had not heard him in European repertory before, but hope to soon again.
Some double talk from CalArts' dean of music, David Rosenboom, attempted to locate that school's Green Umbrella program within the citywide Schoenberg celebration: Olga Neuwirth because she hails from Schoenberg's Vienna, John Cage despite Schoenberg's refusal to teach him, Henry Brant for no discernible reason. The program ranged from unconscionable to unendurable: 50 minutes of Cage's Sixteen Dances tentatively played and abominably danced in smart-aleck choreography by members of the school's dance department, some contrapuntal chaos by Neuwirth, a depressingly blah song cycle by Earl Kim (who had at least worked with Schoenberg, but also with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt). It was already past 10 o'clock when the 89-year-old Henry Brant came on to lead -- with his zany pantomime manner of conducting -- groups of music makers spotted throughout the hall, some wandering and some stationary, in one of the spatial pieces that are his particular shtick in trade. As with Glennie, the music may not have been much, but the watching was glorious.
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