The crowd observed a moment of silence as Lorin Maazel brought his performing forces to a reverent ending in a darkened Disney Hall last week, then burst forth in high-decibel approval. As with Messiaen's pictorial panorama the week before, and the urban masterworks of the preceding week, those who crave fare other than the customary bread and butter on the Philharmonic programs have been uncommonly well-served lately.
This was the third time around in recent years for Benjamin Britten's War Requiem: André Previn in 1991, Antonio Pappano in 2000, now Maazel. A bit much? I would trade any one of these for a performance with the groups properly spaced through the hall: the boys off in some loft to provide the celestial ceiling as two dead soldiers talk, in friendly terms, of their deaths. Nearly everybody at Disney last week was clumped together, with Lionel Bringuier's chamber orchestra squeezed into the back of the principal orchestra and only the wonderful Nancy Gustafson given space (in the organ loft) to spread her angelic wings. Surely our gorgeous new concert hall must afford better use of space than that!
About the War Requiem: With all my fondness for Britten's music - the exquisite strands of enchantment in his opera A Midsummer Night's Dream, the haunting brutality of Peter Grimes, the small perfection in the chamber operas — there are works that just don't make their way, and this is one. Yes, I am haunted — isn't everybody? — by the one last line as his two soldiers meet in the Later On ("I am the enemy you killed, my friend ...") but not by the overpowering ironies that Britten attempted to winnow out of Wilfred Owen's poetry. For once in all of Britten's huge and admirable output, this is a work that keeps its distance. And since that is also pretty much my take on Maazel's conducting, this time and on many previous encounters, it was not exactly my favorite week at the Philharmonic.
The Church at the End of Time
As Paul on the road to Damascus, so am I on the high road of reconciliation to the music of Olivier Messiaen, and you're just gonna hear about it for one more week. Amazement abounded in Santa Monica's abundant rain last Saturday in the form, need I tell you, of the Jacaranda concerts' latest chapter in its multiyear Messiaen bash. First Pres was jammed; everybody was there except Mark Swed, who was in Oregon, where Peter Serkin's Tashi, the first group ever to play the Quartet for the End of Time popularly in the real world, were having at it in an anniversary event. They couldn't have played any better, with any more profound dedication, than Jacaranda's folks.
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Patrick Scott's program notes for the quartet — detailing the prison-camp life out of which the music took shape, the early performance history, and the inner lights that cast their glow upon every aspect of the music itself and from the emboldened soul of its creator — constitute an enriching document. In themselves they demonstrate how this remarkable series stands apart from most other concert ventures: simply by maintaining this close identity between the music on each program and the genuine dedication and love of the people involved in it.
There is no better way, of course, to present the music of this extraordinary work, this series of audible vignettes in which Messiaen lays before us his deep personal vision — "immaterial, spiritual, Catholic" — at the heart of the Apocalypse. Angels and birds intertwine in announcing the "End of Time" and the "Eternity of Jesus"; they further unite in praise to the "Eternity of Jesus, to "His Immortality." These moments of praise are among the most poignant, the most painful, in their meaningful beauty, of all sections of the quartet's eight movements. A solo for cello and piano (Timothy Loo and Gloria Cheng) transcended all in sheer radiance this time around.
Jacaranda's program, the usual gatherum, began with organist Mark Hilt's playing of Bach's ever-popular D-minor Toccata and Fugue and went on to three movements only from Berg's Lyric Suite followed by all of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite for piano duet. The splendid Denali Quartet, Jacaranda's resident ensemble, nicely dispatched the Berg movements, with Elissa Johnston to sing the Baudelaire verses that may or may not belong to the sixth movement; Gloria Cheng and Mark Alan Hilt played Ravel's juvenilia like the grown-ups they are.
Or to Put It in Another Way
My comment in this space last week — about cuts in Wagner operas — was inspired by common expectations that performances of these music dramas are normally curtailed, at least in American opera houses. Just before the recent Tristan und Isolde at the Music Center, I ran into David Hockney, the designer of the current splendid production, who told me with some wonderment that all cuts in the current production had now been restored. Whether such restorative service proves an out-and-out enhancement to such passages as, say, the first 17 minutes of the Act 2 duet, which consist of Tristan and Isolde tossing metaphors back and forth on the true meaning of love, before they even get to sit down together, I leave to you.