“Music is never pure,” wrote Luciano Berio of his Circles, “it is attitude; it is theater.” Berio’s great vocal adventure ended the 1961-62 season of Monday Evening Concerts, to a capacity crowd. It began the 2006-07 season last week, again with a turn-away box office. Much has happened in between; we’ll get to that.
Berio’s late, great works all mirrored his fierce fascination with the interaction of words and sound. Before Circles, there had been a piece dissecting passages from Joyce’s Ulysses through electronic manipulation of sounds and syllables. Circles, even trickier, took poetry of e.e. cummings (which was already involved with fragmenting words and phrases) and broke them up even further so that the poet’s distinctive orthography found its mirror in its musical setting. The Berio legacy is a phenomenal repertory of music-plus-language, spilling over into opera, large-scale choral music, and glorious theatrical works, of which Circles is one.
That work was inspired by, and therefore created for, Berio’s wife at the time, the late, great actress/singer/indefinable creative spirit Cathy Berberian. Last March, when the Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox” came up with an extraordinary new actress/singer/indefinable creative spirit named Cristina Zavalloni, the whispers started to rise: Is there a new Circles on the horizon? The whispers reached the committee who were struggling to rekindle the Monday Evening Concerts, after that valuable enterprise had been bounced (for no good reason, and several bad) by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the long story was made short last week at REDCAT. Zavalloni was back, as great as we knew she would be; she followed her spellbinding performance of Circles with another of Berberian’s numbers, a monologue made up of comic-strip punch lines. Cristina Berio, daughter of Berberian, looked pleased. Imagine, sitting still while someone just about half your age does your own mom onstage.
It was quite an evening, in fact, a benefit honoring the late Dorrance Stalvey, who had planned and managed the series for its last 34 years, literally single-handed, and made it one of the most adventurous concert programs anywhere in the country — in variety and in quality of performers. This first program bore this out: an established contemporary masterpiece, a respectable piece of new-music academe (by Stalvey himself) and a 40-minute work of genuine challenge by a composer, the late Gérard Grisey, out of the European mainstream, whose music might have lingered long on the doorstep if small organizations like MEC were not at hand to usher it in.
Three more Monday Evenings are in the works for this season, all at Zipper Concert Hall (across from Disney). The next, on February 19, will focus on young American composers.
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Near the end of his Magnificat — music that sent a capacity Disney crowd homeward one night last week practically chortling in their joyousness — old Bach pulls one of those intricacy tricks that, so often with just the slightest flick of the pen, sets him sky-high above his Baroque buddies. It’s actually a very quiet passage: two sopranos and an alto in a slow tune about how God has helped out Israel in times of trouble. Two singers’ vocal lines go up the scale; the third goes down in gentle counterpoint; the low instruments throb a simple accompaniment. But there’s one more thing: Over all this, two oboes intone yet another melody, an ancient “Magnificat” chant that Mozart would also use, 60 years later, in his Requiem. That sound, high above everything else in this quiet, soft-spoken movement, becomes like a star in a firmament. Long after the entire Magnificat is over, with its trumpeting exultations and its breathless string of tiny movements that come on like a bill of particulars on why our souls should, indeed, magnify the Lord, the exquisite craftsmanship of this one tiny passage lingers in the memory.
We all have our small pantheon of special moments; this tiny jewel in the Magnificat, set amid the splendor of the whole work, happens to be one of mine. (For your information, among its companions are a certain high D in Mozart’s G-minor Quintet, the modulation back to E major in Schubert’s C-major Quintet, and Violetta’s singing of “Ah! Dite alla giovine” in La Traviata). When listening to Bach, I am aware that different muscles are called into play than when listening to Mozart (ahhhh!) or Brahms (grrrr!). There is that extra dimension: the sense of being present at the solving of an intricate problem — an “elegant solution,” my mathematician friends like to say — and having it also come out beautiful and moving.
Proof? They’re all over the place. One is the slow movement of the first “Brandenburg” Concerto, which consists of a minor-key tune that twists upon itself in a kind of tense counterpoint. Because the tune is in a minor key, and starts on No. 5 of that scale, the progression No. 5 to No. 6 will be a wrench (G to A-flat on the piano, say). Play this off against itself, as Mr. Bach does quite on purpose, and your teeth begin to hurt. Hand it off to the lower-pitched instruments and the dissonance becomes all the more grating. Here is this churchly, correct composer stirring up the demons of dissonance, circa 1720; you could stick this stuff into a Mahler symphony and nobody would notice. Nor would the devout Wagnerite flinch at the music for the Crucifixion in the B-minor Mass; that wrenching dissonance is simply Bach himself flinching at that horrid moment, and shifting from one classical key to another as if to get the tragedy off his back.
Beauty plus process: It’s that mingling, on a level field, that breeds the particular satisfaction in the Bach experience. Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, in his latest holiday-time visit with his wonderfully spirited, crystalline-voiced small chorus La Chapelle de Québec — 40 strong, joined to a Philharmonic contingent of like proportion — made this Bach immersion a mostly joyous experience. The Magnificat made the most glorious noise; to begin, there was sterner stuff, the motet Jesu, Meine Freude for chorus alone with supporting bass, and an alternative version of the Gloria from the B-minor Mass that I might have swapped for less familiar fare. But the night was Bach’s, and Labadie’s, and those two oboes’, and they outshone everything else.