Felix the Felicitous

Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is so immediately lovable that we can forget what an original and important work it really is. It can bring out the best in a performer, as it did for Sarah Chang in her Philharmonic appearance last week. It can also bring out the worst, as it did for Bulldozer Nadja at the Bowl a couple of summers ago, a performance I wish I could get out of my head.

For its time — 1844, three years before the composer’s death — it was a new kind of concerto. Rather than the customary long orchestral preamble, its soloist enters immediately to tell us the matter at hand, a matter of great intensity but set into a shapely frame — not a note too many, nor a gesture wasted. Beethoven had allowed his soloist an early entry in his last two piano concertos, but only as a quick-tease preview. Mendelssohn’s soloist comes at us from center stage. All kind of things happen in the work that hadn’t happened in concertos before — not, at least, in any music worth preserving. The cadenza comes in the “wrong” place, at the moment of highest tension in the dramatic plan rather than, as in Mozart or Beethoven, in the peroration. There is no break between movements; the mark of a good performance, in fact, is the successful transit over the flimsy bridge that connects the first and second movements — a single held note on the bassoon — without audience reaction beyond the proper silent awe. (That almost happened at the Music Center on Thursday, as a single “brava” got choked off in midsyllable.)

Mendelssohn’s place in the pantheon isn’t easily assessed. His legacy is studded with serene and novel almost-masterworks of high order -– the Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream music from his teens, this concerto and the “Scottish” Symphony from his 30s, remarkable patches in between. At LACMA, the night before the Philharmonic concert, the Angeles String Quartet performed the D-major Quartet (Opus 44 No. 1) from six years before the concerto, music of considerable energy but also hobbled by contrapuntal churning and by an amount of clumsy tune spinning that you don’t usually expect from that airborne pen. The counterpoint in the Violin Concerto is wonderful stuff — for one instance, the gorgeous free-flying tune that floats over the giggling main theme of the finale. We hear it as the magic nobody else could (or, at least, did) create. Measure that, however, against the vast exercises in turgid contrapuntal writing in the oratorios and even in some of the chamber pieces, and you wonder if all of Mendelssohn’s noble work in restoring Bach’s St. Matthew Passion rubbed off on his own music the wrong way.

(More about the Angeles Quartet anon; I am spending this week in the company of their new recording of all of Haydn’s string quartets — 21 discs on Philips. I’ll report next week, if I get back to Earth in time.)

The Philharmonic’s program was actually a celebration of Joaquin Rodrigo’s centenary, with Mendelssohn’s concerto stuck in as leavening — a welcome alternative to the more obvious but far less worthy choice, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. There was a relationship here that the more demented observer might notice. Rodrigo, too, lives on through a clutch of attractive and elegant (neo-Mendelssohnian, perhaps?) concertos, most but not all for guitar, which aspire to a favored place in the repertory — and, apparently, a fair amount of stuff of lesser appeal. The works on last week’s program, which received lively, careful and loving performances under Miguel Harth-Bedoya, were in the latter enclave: three pieces for large orchestra composed between 1923 and 1978, including one about Don Quixote’s Dulcinea that called for voices, all of it well-wrought without very much distinction in tone — or, for that matter, traits of style identifiable as Rodrigo or any other of his compatriots. The composer’s daughter Cecilia lent a charming presence to the pre-concert talk, but didn’t cast further light on why this should all be taking place.

Mark Adamo’s Little Women runs at the Irvine Barclay Theater through May 20, brought here by Opera Pacific in the work’s acclaimed first production by the Houston Opera Studio. I urge you to see it, to assure yourself that beautifully proportioned small-scale American opera can still work if serious intelligences are involved. Adamo did his own libretto, and set it to vital, shapely music that, for once in the troubled annals of new opera, doesn’t sound cribbed from half a dozen soundtracks. Not having made my way through Louisa May Alcott’s enduring novel at any time in recent decades, I still get from this lithe and enormously attractive stage work a sense of closeness to the interlock of personalities that I missed in, for example, the recent Winona Ryder film. Adamo writes arias, lots of them, and they really identify the people singing them. Better yet, he writes ensemble pieces with genuine operatic counterpoint. In this he is aided by Peter Webster’s stage direction, which places characters in dramatic contrast, in and out of time and focus, on Christopher McCollum’s wonderfully cluttered, multilevel stage set.

The cast, mostly young and not yet well-known, couldn’t be better: a strong, frazzled Jo from Kirsten Chávez played off against the fragile, vulnerable Laurie of Jeffrey Lentz; Katherine Ciesinski’s glorious harridan of an Aunt March; Christina Suh, Natalie Taormina and Stephanie Woodling as the other March sisters; Andrew Fernando as Friedrich Bhaer, scene-stealing with high bravado in his rendition of a Goethe ballad. Christopher Larkin, who conducted the Houston performances, does so again. His orchestra is small: 11 strings, single winds; it’s all you need to project this rich, pliant score.

For a first opera, by a composer still in his 30s, I would reckon Little Women a happy, even astonishing success. Its presence here is the first entry in Opera Pacific’s new program highlighting recent American operas. Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking is the announced second entry. You can’t win ’em all.


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