Not With a Bang but a Whisper

Tchaikovsky here, Turandot there: The music season soared toward its final days at full volume, on grand, swooping wings. At the close, however, there was exquisite quietude. Sitting last weekend in the courtyard of that architectural wonder, the Rudolf Schindler house in West Hollywood, with Schindler’s stark, simple structural lines dwarfed by trees and tall bamboo, you could imagine yourself in some remote, moonlit forest, with the sounds of John Cage‘s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano resounding like a gamelan off in the next village.

I am not always sure that listening to Cage’s music is the best way to grasp his unique and important art. There are times when the sounds that emerge from, say, packing boxes lightly tapped, or carrots in a food processor, or a solo violin playing music so convoluted that Cage himself needed a computer to explain it -- ”the sound of lettuce wilting,“ said a friend, of the Freeman Etudes -- are less enchanting in themselves than the pronouncements of the man who demanded their place in the musical firmament. Yet there is a body of music from Cage‘s 50-plus years as music’s irritant and guiding spirit that is simply, directly and truly beautiful, and this hourlong set from the early years (1946--48) -- a single monument formed out of 20 small, lapidary, perfectly formed pieces -- hung in the night air at Schindler like an epiphany, a benevolence. James Tenney, a onetime Cage disciple and now at CalArts, preceded his elegant performance with Cage‘s most famous single piece, the 4’33” -- not a silent work, as some believe, but a work for silent pianist and the surrounding audible ambiance. The repertory of “involuntary” sounds this time included a crying baby and a Spanish-language TV close by and a small plane up above -- a foretaste of the Hollywood Bowl concerts that kick off a new music season as you read these words.

By the most common measurements, the mix this season has been the usual hope, revelation and exasperation. Under its new artistic management, the Los Angeles Opera was stunningly reborn in early September: reborn in the orchestra pit under Valery Gergiev and -- a couple of days delayed by 911 -- the company‘s new principal conductor, Kent Nagano; reborn in repertory -- finally a Russian opera, Wagner, Schoenberg, even Bach; reborn in newly funded security resting in part upon Albert Vilar’s zillions. Not everything went as planned, of course; it never does. Reports of Vilar‘s dwindling fortunes continue to circulate; the pie-in-the-sky George Lucas-- designed Ring, originally slated for next year, has been put off until Wotan knows when; the 2002-03 season is upon us without a sure director announced for either opening or closing nights. Still, the splendid Nagano-led performances -- Lohengrin, the Berlin visitors with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, and the closing BartokPuccini double bill -- were enough to offset Achim Freyer‘s lurid misconception of Bach’s B-minor Mass, or the wretched pairs of principals that made it impossible to judge the new ending Luciano Berio had fashioned for Nagano‘sTurandot.

The Opera’s Moses und Aron was actually the season‘s major Schoenberg event, even though the anniversary celebration (50 years dead) was nominally motivated by the Philharmonic. That visionary organization, however, backed away from the grittier atonal repertory (Erwartung, for example, or the Variations for Orchestra, the Violin Concerto or larger chamber works like the Serenade) and wasted everybody’s time with the hopeless early Pelleas und Melisande. The best of the Philharmonic‘s Schoenberg celebration was actually the Green Umbrella concert, culminating in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s rapturous reading of the First Chamber Symphony. The concomitant Shostakovich event, which promises all 15 symphonies, under Salonen, is likely -- strange to relate -- to prove more revelatory. It will be interesting to note Salonen‘s take next season on the Fifth (May 2), which he once swore to conduct only over his own dead body.

Three string quartets visiting the County Museum’s Monday Evening series brought strong programs and played them beautifully: the Parisii with Schoenberg‘s Third Quartet, the Artemis and Penderecki with each of Ligeti’s two quartets apiece, the Penderecki also with the deep, convoluted, elegant Second Quartet of Szymanowski, which I must get to know better. Jeff Kahane‘s L.A. Chamber Orchestra delivered the best performance of a Haydn Symphony (No. 102) that I’ve heard in years, and the soloist that night was the astonishing Thomas Quasthoff. I followed that program from Glendale‘s Alex Theater to Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall and was delighted by the performance level both times. (Before you get ready to look down your nose at this summer‘s Bowl programs, note that Quasthoff is due to sing Mahler there, with Salonen and the Philharmonic, on August 13.)

And next season? An amazing tome dropped on my desk last week, listing upcoming events at UCLA -- at Royce Hall, Schoenberg Hall and points in between. After a couple of so-so seasons, the school’s Performing Arts Department seems to have zoomed into orbit, with a phenomenal agenda that includes theater -- a Robert Wilson--directed Woyzeck (!) with Tom Waits‘ music (December 4) -- dance galore and a fabulous musical array. From a quick glance at promised music, I noted a recital (October 9) by the powerful mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who will also sing in John Adams’ El Niño with the Philharmonic in March), the superb American conductor David Robertson (Santa Monica--born) leading his Orchestre National de Lyon (February 2), the new Steve Reich--Beryl Korot multimedia work (February 27-28), and both Bach passions (April 4-5) with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium--Japan, whose fame already approaches legendary status.

Will this leave time to cruise down to Costa Mesa when the Eclectic Orange Festival comes up with Osvaldo Golijov‘s Pasion Segun San Marco in October? Or to the L.A. Opera’s War and Peace later that month? Or the Master Chorale (also reborn under Grant Gershon‘s leadership) singing Poulenc, Gorecki and Arvo Part in the newly consecrated Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in November? Or Reich’s spellbinding The Desert Music later in the season? Or Pierre Boulez and Mitsuko Uchida at the Philharmonic‘s final Dorothy Chandler Pavilion subscription concert in May? Or their visit the following week to the Ojai Festival?

Ho-hum, a well-known local critic once remarked; nothing ever happens in this cultural desert of a plastic lotus of a La-La Land. And where is he now?


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