Here Come the Brits With Strings Attached

Photo by Sue Adler

Between a 1610 violin sonata by Giovanni Paulo Cima and the 1995 Fifth String Quartet by Elliott Carter there stretches a chronological and stylistic gap of nearly four centuries. Still, the music in both cases — the one played last week by the British group that calls itself Romanesca at one of the Da Camera Society’s "Historic Sites" concerts, the other by Britain’s Arditti Quartet at Caltech on Sunday — assaulted the same nerve centers in my receptive apparatus. So —


— did Saturday’s violin recital at Royce Hall, the first local appearance by the singular Brit with the single name of Kennedy, having forsworn the "Nigel" of his birth. (Show biz is full of name-droppers.)

Cima and his countrymen Dario Castello and Biagio Marini — who shared the Romanesca program that bore the subtitle "Phantasticus" in an elegant salon at Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel — flourished in the early years of Baroque. Opera had just been invented, and with it a new manner of vocal writing, passionate and virtuosic, supported by some wildly adventurous turns of harmony that can still astound our ears today. The violin had begun to take the place of the earlier viol, also allowing greater feats of virtuosity and a vibrant tone of almost human earnestness. The concert was well-named; the players — violinist Andrew Manze, harpsichordist John Toll, and Nigel North, who played both the lute and its larger, giraffe-necked relative called the theorbo — lunged delightedly into music full of amazing shifts of mood, unruly outcries, grinding dissonances, "phantastic" in every sense.

Romanesca records for Harmonia Mundi; their latest disc, also called Phantasticus, contains some of the music from last week’s concert, but with a wonderful small organ alongside the harpsichord. Manze has also conducted a superb set of Handel’s Opus 6 Concerti Grossi on H.M., in the same kind of vivid, taut, deliciously impolite performances he delivered here. If his mission is to take Baroque music out of its wallpaper status, he has my vote.

In a getup that suggested a recent rummage through a nearby dumpster, the aforementioned Kennedy — self-styled punk kid, age 42 — ambled onto the Royce Hall stage half an hour late, engaged in some clumsy chitchat, got some laffs with the information that Béla Bartók had died of leukemia in an unheated Manhattan apartment (not true) and that he doesn’t like having his hair washed (obviously true). He also performed, phenomenally: Bartók’s Sonata and two movements from Bach’s C-major Sonata, both for unaccompanied violin, and seven movements from a "Concerto in Suite Form," concocted by Kennedy from music by Jimi (listed in the program as "J.M.") Hendrix, backed by an acoustic combo of guitars, cellos, winds and bass. Some of the Hendrix pieces were spatchcocked between movements of the Bartók, a lamentable procedure partly redeemed because the segues themselves were nicely imagined and the music itself somewhat stupendous.

There is, however, something of a Kennedy problem. He is obviously one of the great musicians of his generation, technically omnipotent and brainy as well. His in-your-face recorded performances of wide-ranging repertory, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to the Elgar concerto, prove that he, too, is anxious to do battle with the wallpaper syndrome. But he seems to be squandering a small fortune on unnecessary image building, which, on Saturday night, I found intrusive, offensive, and unworthy of his obvious brilliance and of his age.

The Arditti Quartet, which performs in suits and matching socks, had played Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and Elliott Carter’s Fifth Quartet at Irvine in March; it did no harm to revisit them, even in the dreary acoustical and visual setting of Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium to open the 95th (!) annual Coleman Concerts. In the Beethoven, that extraordinary exercise in manic counterpoint, I discover more marvels on each hearing; in the Carter I discover fewer. The Arditti, which otherwise plays nothing but very new music, often with the ink still wet, apparently regards the Beethoven as a gateway, an understandable attitude. Their program also included Carter’s recent Piano Quintet, composed for the superb, adventurous pianist Ursula Oppens, its garrulous, cavorting piano part considerably leavening the usual Cartesian textures. On her own, Oppens also played a late Beethoven sonata, Opus 110. The day was Beethoven’s, by a considerable margin.

Yet another Brit, composer George Benjamin, led the Philharmonic’s New Music Group in some of his own energetic music — including his Three Inventions, commissioned by local patron Betty Freeman, and an immensely appealing early piece called At First Light — at last week’s "Green Umbrella" concert at the Japan America. Born in 1960, Benjamin studied with Olivier Messiaen, whose own genius for manipulating huge, multicolored blocks of sound his pupil has ob viously absorbed. Benjamin’s music is full of paint and shards of stained glass, and wonderful moments in which distant, somber pronouncements from the brass make themselves heard through clouds of sparks and smoke. Susan Narucki sang Unsuk Chin’s Acrostic-Wordplay, enchanting, quiz- zical music by a young Korean composer new to American audiences, and Benjamin, at the piano, played one of Messiaen’s ravishing bird pieces: an exceptionally strong, balanced program, too sparsely attended.

Watching Yuri Bashmet perform Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto last week, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic, you almost thought that the late Schnittke himself had returned. Schnittke was considerably less tall, but the two men’s features — gaunt, glaring, hollow-cheeked, the look of a latter-day Raskolnikov — seemed almost uncannily similar. And they seem to merge as well in this extraordinary concerto that Schnittke composed for Bashmet in 1985.

The work, which Bashmet has recorded for RCA, is music of outcry: 35 minutes of passionate discourse, sometimes wrenching, sometimes soft and conciliatory. The orchestra is large, but there are no violins; the solo viola sings out above the low strings, and its voice is almost constantly present. The orchestra also includes piano, harpsichord and celesta, all of them placed down front to engage in occasional intimate duets with the soloist. The work begins with a slow, rhapsodic melodic unfolding for the soloist; it returns to that kind of music at the end. The long, faster central movement veers wildly and wonderfully, as if obsessed with having too much to say in too little time. I cannot think of another concerto of this century in which the soloist seems to take on an almost human personality, singing (and sometimes shrieking) lines in which actual words lurk just below the surface. For this you would have to go back to the last piano concertos of Mozart, which this moving, tortured work of Schnittke in no way resembles — except in its impact.


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