It's All Greek
The ethics of full disclosure oblige me to reveal up front that I wrote the program notes for one of the concerts reviewed in this space. The fee I received, every penny, went for a root canal. If that doesn't count as expiation, I'd like to know what does.
At the J. Paul Getty Museum, an exhibit called Beyond Beauty: Antiquities as Evidence presents some of the museum's sculptural holdings in a nicely arranged gallery liberally festooned with informational placards. What the "evidence" is supposed to substantiate I'm not quite sure; the language of museumese can make even the most high-flying writing about music read like the Yellow Pages. But the artworks are beautiful enough, whatever beauty may lie beyond.
As an adjunct to the exhibit, the Getty has put together a series of musical events with its own highfalutin title: Ancient Echoes: Music and Dance Evoking Greco-Roman Antiquity, six programs on Saturday and Sunday nights in the Museum Courtyard - three down so far and three to go. The Pasadena Symphony's Jorge Mester is the series' artistic director; his programming becomes, indeed, an enterprising exploration into the ways musicians - from Renaissance times to our own - have fancied themselves driven by the highest ideals of ancient classicism. "The only way to become great," wrote Johann Winckelmann in his book on classical art, a 1765 best-seller, ". . . is to imitate the Greeks."
There's a historical thread that runs through music as far back as you care to trace it, a constant desire for composers to reconfirm their tickets to Heaven by identifying with ancestral personages from other arts, specifically with the designers of the Parthenon and their world. Music attains a certain level of high sophistication and complexity; then a crowd of composer-activists comes along to deplore all this high artistry. "Music has lost its human values," they proclaim. "Let's dump all this counterpoint and return to the pure ideals of the Greek masters." Thus ranted the dilettantes of the Florentine Camerata around 1600, distancing themselves from the intricacies of Palestrina's polyphony and inventing opera. Thus, 150 years later, spoke Christoph Gluck, proclaiming that opera had now become too encrusted with complexity, offering his Greek-inspired Alceste and Orfeo ed Euridice as correctives. In our own century, Igor Stravinsky, having turned the musical world upside down with his Rite of Spring, then reinvented classicism (or invented Neo-Classicism, either way) with his Apollon Musagete. Later on the nut-genius Harry Partch proclaimed that all music had been following the wrong path since Pericles' time, and devised scales and instruments to enable a whole fresh start.
It may be worth noting - or worth nothing - that the one substance that might have facilitated these invocations of the Periclean ideal virtually doesn't exist. There are volumes of ancient theoretical writings about Greek music, and a great deal of ethical writing as well. Both Plato and Aristotle defined the place of music in society, and even specified the kinds of harmony that bred bravery in the hearer and the kinds that bred cowardice. Friezes, statues and decorated vases provide a lavish visual display of instruments. Practically speaking, however, there is no music: perhaps 50 fragments surviving from an eight-century span (500 B.C.-300 A.D.), some not more than a measure or two, that may or may not denote a specific melodic or rhythmic pattern. At last week's Getty concert, third in the series, Philip and Gayle Stuwe Neuman, a young Oregon couple who call themselves Ensemble De Organographia, performed their own creditable reconstructions of some of these fragments, on "authentic" instruments they themselves built from old designs. The results, though pretty in a singsong sort of way that occasionally reminded me of some of the dumb-dumb tunes in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, is hardly the stuff of the great art forms that might have served as role models for composers centuries later.
In the Getty courtyard - a setting of some bleakness, more like an oil company's corporate campus than a concert venue, under cool breezes that seek to sweep some of the sound out into Sepulveda Pass - Apollo and Dionysus wage their interesting battles; Winckelmann's notion of "imitating the Greeks" can take many forms. The first program put forward a generous gathering of vocal works of Florence and Venice from around 1600, music stunning in its emotional intensity, directly influenced by the proclamations of the Camerata that had called for a new manner of composition in which melody and harmony were to join to underscore the passions of the text. Under Michael Eagan's splendid direction, with vintage-instrument performers from his Musica Angelica ensemble (none the worse after their madcap Purcell with the Long Beach Opera a few weeks ago), a splendid vocal quartet delivered a survey of early Baroque heartbreak, songs short and long resounding with "lamento," "soffrire," "misero" relieved by an occasional palliative "dolcissimi." It's a wonderful repertory; the geniuses of the age - Claudio Monteverdi above all, but also his colleagues Francesco Cavalli and, you'll be happy to hear, Barbara Strozzi - were marvelously adept at the sudden key change, the stinging dissonance, the jagged leap in the vocal line, all in the ardent quest for putting over the deepest sentiments with the most economical means. The singers - the well-known Judith Nelson along with Jennifer Lane, Daniel Plaster and the prodigiously resonant bass Curtis Streetman - had obviously been urged by Eagan to avoid the prissy delivery that lesser souls associate with early music, and to sing out. The results were astonishing.
The second program also offered music of self-proclaimed Greek identity but of more recent vintage: Debussy's elegant, chaste Sacred and Profane Dances, Satie's Socrate and Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete - music of considerably cooler temperament - and Britten's remarkable cantata Phaedra, which does seem to take up where Monteverdi's passions left off. The Satie was the evening's curio, a half-hour setting of extended passages from Plato's writings about Socrates, bland vocal lines over an instrumental backing prevailingly gray. In his pre-concert chat Robert Winter advanced the suggestion that the work could be recast for the Three Tenors. That might, indeed, have helped, as the earnest work by Jacqueline Bobak, Lisa Popeil, Virginia Sublett and Kimball Wheeler did not. Jorge Mester led a small ensemble from his Pasadena Symphony throughout the evening; JoAnne Turovsky was the fine harpist in the Debussy, and Wheeler returned in the Britten work to endow the evening with its finest moments.
The Getty is admirably dedicated to musical presentations, both indoors and out. Shed a tear, however, for the setting in the elegant Inner Peristyle Garden of the once and (let us pray) future Getty out Malibu way. There you could feel the mingling of the arts. Now the music mingles with stone walls and the roar of I-405; it isn't quite the same.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.