Missing the Moonlight
Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Concerto as a handshake to the American audiences who awaited his first tour of this country. His first movement teems with his new love of the American vernacular; the jazz licks are straight out of Gershwin, maybe a line or two of Paul Whiteman, something of the blues with their flatted sixth note. Then something even more wonderful happens: The solo piano starts the slow movement with a tune fashioned out of pure moonlight. One by one, the winds take it over; when the sheer poignancy has set our souls to rest, the jazz returns for a happy awakening and farewell.
But it’s that slow movement that lingers. At Ojai, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played it just as that famous pink light of dusk engulfed the Valley, and there was no separation between sight and sound. That memory followed me into the Hollywood Bowl a few nights ago, and made it impossible to cope with Andreas Haefliger’s piano made hard-toned and jangly by the amplification, and the music itself made square and unlovely by the pianist’s notion that it existed in small, regular boxes of sound rather than streams of moonlight. The jazz in the outer movements was okay, however, just okay.
So here we are at Bowl time again, that amazing cornucopia of classical music, 10 weeks’ worth, ranging from the inevitable Bruch Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang to Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting music of his own plus a complete Boris Godunov — and all served up, for the choosing, in catered Cytherean luxury or in dollar seats somewhere in Nebraska. No place in the world offers so much for so little. The amplification, with its flaws, is, I am assured, state-of-the-art. There are TV screens so that what you can’t hear you can watch. The fireworks couldn’t be more swell.
Leonard Slatkin conducted the first two weeks of classical concerts, as he has for the last two years. I opted out of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which followed the Ravel; it came too soon after my trip to Munich, and collided with my jet lag. Actually, the best music making I heard during Slatkin’s stay came the following Tuesday, on a clever program he had arranged — and identified as a nostalgia trip to programs of his childhood at the Bowl (and mine too, at the Boston “Pops”) — that consisted entirely of short pieces, half-and-half trash and precious. “Precious” indeed was the Scherzo from Henry Charles Litolff’s Concerto Symphonique No. 4, with Christopher O’Riley as soloist. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
The piano virtuoso Litolff was another of those obscure Romantics, like the organist Julius Reubke I wrote about some months ago, who gained the admiration and support of Franz Liszt. He turned out several operas, and a small repertory of overstuffed, fustian but curiously attractive piano pieces, which soon vanished from the repertory. This one Scherzo from the fourth of Litolff’s five “Symphonic Concertos” goes clattering up- and downhill, never pausing for breath, spinning huge clouds of virtuosic tracery. There’s a huge legacy of delightful, bad music like this from around 1850, and I love almost every note; the Gottschalk disc that I chortled over a couple of weeks ago belongs on this spider web–draped shelf. This eight-minute tidbit by Litolff — in which O’Riley seemed to be splashing around delightedly — is one of the best. Sad, that only this one movement from the whole concerto ever gets played, and even that not often; I long to hear it all, and never have. How this genre declined, by the way, was tragically demonstrated by the next work on the Bowl program, Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, cobbled together from music from a wartime movie, a compendium of flailings from all the terrible piano concertos — and there were many — concocted in the century since the time of Litolff.
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Keepers of the Night, which drew good crowds to Glendale’s Alex Theater over the Friday-the-13th weekend, was both an opera-for-children and an opera-with-children that did not insult the musical standards of grown-ups. Many of the latter around me on the night I went, important musical personages all, seemed both surprised and delighted at the charm, sophistication and deep beauty of the music. Inasmuch as the work’s creators, the composer Peter Ash and the librettist Donald Sturrock, bear the stigma of their previous work on Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, one of our opera company’s gloomier escapades, more’s the surprise.
The plotline isn’t much; Shakespeare is not far off, as earthling couples mingle in the affairs of not-quite-earthly (all right, birdly) forest creatures. Everyone undergoes some degree of bewitchment, with the wondrous result, becoming increasingly wondrous as the second act moves on, of a series of ensembles of truly bewitching, complex harmonies. Evocations of Britten’s own “Dream” are hard to dispel; you want to rush home — at least I did — and play that wondrous score until well past midnight.
There were, however, insurmountable obstacles, born of mingling a cast of professional singers with even the genuinely talented kids of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, in an acoustically imperfect setting — which the Alex stage most emphatically is. On the one hand, here was Suzanna Guzmán, wonderful to hear and hilarious in her many-legged spider getup. (Eat yer heart out, Tobey Maguire!) Up against her were the four children of the bewitched family, almost inaudible except for Brother Dominic, the one in the group whose voice had changed. Microphoning would probably have worsened the imbalance; what to do?
Surely there is a 400-seat in-the-round space somewhere in the area where repertory like this can take hold and flourish. All told, this very worthy work, in an imaginative production conducted by the Master Chorale’s Grant Gershon and directed by Corey Madden, needed the chance for a better life. Keep it.