Many Threads

One special image comes to mind when Toru Takemitsu’s music is at hand. It is the final moment in Akira Kurosawa‘s Ran, for which Takemitsu composed the score that is one of film music’s supreme achievements. The film is Kurosawa‘s gloss on Shakespeare’s Lear, and its final shot is of a lone figure, blind and abandoned (Edgar? The Fool? Gloucester?) playing his flute at the edge of a precipice over which he will surely fall. A solitary figure, a solitary line of music: I cannot think of another brief moment in film where sight and sound are so inextricably meshed. It haunted me in absentia throughout the Philharmonic‘s marvelous Takemitsu concert at Royce Hall last week.

“The song I would like to sing,” Takemitsu remarked in the 1990s, “is not a simple lyric line but more than this -- a narrative line intertwined with many threads . . .” Many threads were twined around Takemitsu’s own musical life as well. Largely self-taught in his native Japan, he studied -- “devoured,” more to the point -- Debussy‘s half-tints, Messiaen’s pantheistic ecstasies, Cage‘s artistic libertarianism. He also devoured the visual world, most of all through cinema; he claimed to have seen something like 300 films a year. More than any previous composer who made a public fuss about music combining the senses -- Scriabin, Richard Strauss -- Takemitsu wrote music that demands being thought of as pansensual. Only Messiaen, whose music Takemitsu adored, attempted anything comparable; on Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Royce Hall program there was the wise inclusion of Messiaen‘s brief Un Sourire, a journey through smiling quasi-Mozart interrupted by delighted outbursts from vast flocks of garrulous birds.

It was an evening of loving homage. The British pianist Paul Crossley was on hand to perform a couple of Takemitsu’s brightly colored short solo pieces and, with the orchestra, the Philharmonic-commissioned (in 1984) riverrun. What a wonderful score! Beyond its title -- the first word of Finnegans Wake -- this is music of darts and flows, of surges and bends. In his excellent program note, Paul Chihara writes of its “overall texture of ravishing transparency, not unlike the subtle brush strokes of Asian calligraphy,” and that is part of the truth here. The rest of the truth is the sense of sheer exuberance that comes through in the best of Takemitsu‘s music, the revel in the splashes and bursts that constantly proclaim the oneness of the senses.

I’ve read a fair amount of nonsense about Takemitsu‘s music, most of it reaction to the timeworn cliches about Japaneseness rather than to his artistic visions. “His music is tranquil to the point of somnolence,” writes the grossly and chronically misguided Norman Lebrecht in his Companion to 20th Century Music. “There is a sameness about each new piece,” etc. etc. There are recordings to underline the fallacy of such judgments, and a fine Takemitsu video in Sony’s “Music for Movies” series. Salonen‘s program ended with Three Film Scores, a suite Takemitsu arranged for string orchestra from his music for three early films noirs: astonishing essays in projecting maximum sinew and menace through purposely reduced means -- and, thus, another remarkable joining of black-and-white sight and sound.

Figaro tells Rosina that she must write a note to her mysterious wooer confirming her interest in his importuning. Rosina reaches into her whatever and produces the note, already written. They then join voices in a lively duet in praise of womanly wiles. That moment adds little to the onward progress of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, but sung as it was at the Irvine Barclay Theater the other night it becomes an irresistible affirmation of the power of music to make singers and audience rejoice in each other‘s presence.

Opera Pacific’s Barber happened not in the company‘s usual unwelcoming venue at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall but in the smaller, friendlier Irvine Barclay. The orchestra was reduced; the first notes out of the Barclay‘s pit, and everything after that, had a richness and a warmth of sound that you just don’t hear at Segerstrom. Canada‘s Robert Tweten, in his company debut, led a performance fleet and affectionate, with the ensembles -- including the hurly-burly that ends the first act -- nicely balanced. Linda Brovsky’s direction was a comedic delight, not merely from a bunch of funny individuals but from a beautiful integration of stage trickery that offered up the illusion of an ensemble that had worked together for years.

John Packard was an agile con man of a Figaro, fresh from his title role in Dead Man Walking and finally granted real music to sing; John Osborn, if you overlook a bit of squall on his top notes, was the dashing Almaviva. (His big final aria, “Cessa di Piu Resistere,” was dropped, as it usually is: probably the better part of valor.) Lynette Tapia, his real-life wife, was the enchanting Rosina, working the role in the canary, or Lili Pons, register rather than the more authentic clarinet, or Marilyn Horne, version, and tossing off a small but right-on top “D” in the “Lesson Scene.” Andrew Fernando, the Bartolo, and Christopher Scott Feigum, the Basilio in a company debut, made a comic pair to the manner born.

An Opera Pacific representative tells me there are no plans at the moment for future productions at the Barclay. Granted that Segerstrom has many more seats -- close to a 4-to-1 ratio -- there was something uniquely endearing about this opera in this place, as there was with Mark Adamo‘s Little Women last year -- and as there always is with the Long Beach Opera, in a hall of comparable size.

That sad thing known as Morimur, if lucky you have already forgotten, came about to illustrate a German musicologist’s whacked-out theory that Bach‘s sublime D-minor Partita for solo violin was a kind of memorial offering to his departed first wife, and that the theory can be supported by imposing a number of conveniently morose chorale tunes between movements of the Partita and atop a performance of the final great Chaconne. In order to make this work, some of the chorales had to be transposed to fit the D-minorness of the Partita. That in itself violates an important baroque principle, wherein particular keys take on particular personalities. Don’t get me going on this or I‘ll put you all to sleep.

Anyhow, the Morimur gig at Schoenberg Hall last month was above all deadly dull, with violinist Christopher Poppen playing like a stick and the Hilliard Ensemble (with one personnel change since the recording) sounding as tired as the enterprise itself. After their position high up on the classical and crossover charts last fall, the people who perpetrated that mess of a pseudo-baroque excursion, recorded on ECM, drew only a half-full house at UCLA’s small Schoenberg Hall. There is hope for us yet.#

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