Max to the Max

WHOLLY MONSTROUS AND MAD Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (known to his friends as Max) lives on, at least in this country, but barely. His several symphonies, massive works that once enjoyed the attention of Simon Rattle, seem to have disappeared from the landscape. Some of his interesting dramatic works for mixed ensembles — e.g., Resurrection, for singers, orchestra, Salvation Army band and rock group — have apparently come and gone. The Fires of London, the extraordinary performance ensemble that toured and recorded his music in thrilling, close-to-the-bone performances, no longer exists. Two works remain popular in the U.S.: his film score to Ken Russell’s The Devils, so far available only on VHS, and his solo theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King, which was brought forth at last week’s Jacaranda Concert at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church in a performance that might modestly be described as stupendous. The “mad king” is, of course, our old friend George III, with Randolph Stow’s text a series of crazed monologues partially based on remembered words from the dotty monarch himself. Onto these manic recitations Davies affixed music of comparable vehemence, imposing on an interpreter a vast array of vocal demands — including a span of four-plus octaves — while allowing considerable theatrical freedom in the way those demands might be met. For last week’s performance at Jacaranda, an extraordinarily gifted singer/actor/acrobat/tragedian/clown named Dean Elzinga, previously unknown to me, met these demands with the force of Lord Nelson’s massed cannons, and delivered one of the most memorable solo turns of my recent memory. Arriving onstage in high hysteria, barely covered in a tattered hospital gown, then departing in silent tragedy half an hour later to a solemn drumbeat and a held low F on the cello, Elzinga shaped an astonishing gamut: searing, shocking and remarkable, too, in the absolute clarity of his diction even at the most piercing falsetto. Earlier in the evening he had forged another level of pleasure, in the wacko charm of HK Gruber’s “pan-demonium,” Frankenstein!! — music that, despite its composer’s best intentions, has worked its way out of the prescribed cabaret milieu and onto the concert stage. As cabaret, the nose thumbing is murderous and hilarious: Batman and Robin in bed together, Goldfinger vs. “Jimmy Bond,” Superman with his pants down — not all that removed from the subtle slashing of Mikel Rouse (see below). As a stage piece of innocent merriment, everybody loved the Robinson Crusoe song, which drew an encore. Participating in all this was the excellent young ensemble that has formed around these Jacaranda events, including the Denali Quartet, whose praises I have previously sung, and Mark Alan Hilt, the musical director who, with Patrick Scott, has dreamed up this whole series of resourceful, imaginative programs in this exceptionally pleasant Santa Monica venue. I’m sorry if I sound like a Jacaranda pitchman, which I’m not, but the impulse behind this series — and its fruition — is a pretty good case study in the way a musical community can be served, from within, by its members. The crowd last week was gratifyingly large and continues to grow, as it should. The next Jacaranda concert is listed for April 30. ROUSE, KROUSE In adjacent rooms in a UCLA theater complex last week, one could, on successive nights, sample the musical approximations of human banality and human carnality. Score one, this time around at least, for the humdrum. Mikel Rouse is not so much a man of the theater; he is the theater. A few years back, alone on another local stage with harmonica and guitar, he turned himself into a pair of Kansas murderers, their victims and their retribution. This time, in the Macgowan Little Theater, he and his tunes became Music for Minorities, the interlock of small points of view into which you and I and everyone we know somehow fit. His tunes achieve a simultaneous boredom and hypnosis. His video images — cast onto a screen behind him — are achingly everyday. He is like A Prairie Home Companion with cayenne instead of ketchup. Across the lobby, in the larger Freud Playhouse, self-indulgence reigned. There is a cookie-cutter sameness to UCLA’s composers, both its faculty and its graduates; it goes back generations. It is a music of slick derivativeness that gladdens trustees’ hearts and makes elderly alumni decide that this modern music isn’t so bad after all. The other night it made three hours of Puccini rewrite — by professor Ian Krouse, who is currently head of UCLA’s composition department — slide down easily, like warm Cream of Wheat with just the slightest dash of cinnamon. You left, however, hungry, bored, dissatisfied — perhaps even outraged. The language of this kind of audience-friendly music calls for great lyrical outpouring; instead, there is feeble gesture. The opera is Lorca, Child of the Moon, to a libretto by Margarita Galban, first composed in 1984, several times revised and left to gather dust in the intervening years, now finally staged (also by Galban). Its plotline finds the poet Lorca himself, wandering among episodes from three of his small tragic dramas, reaching out helplessly to their destroyed heroines, seeking ultimate solace in death. Pirandello? Whatever substance abides in Galban’s book is immediately canceled out by the drab, gadget-ridden music. I have seen commendable opera at UCLA in past years: a Rake’s Progress not at all bad, an excellent Falstaff, the two short Ravel operas as a delightful double bill. The opera program has had funding over the years from the Maxwell H. Gluck Foundation, all to the good. But what purpose is served, I have to ask, aside from the ego of its well-placed composer, to impose this work upon a large cast mostly student (orchestra and production crew likewise), tying up a considerable portion of their college career with a work that anyone with half an ear should recognize as doomed? What ever happened to the fine art of student protest?

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