COMPOSER, PERFORMER, MEDIA HOST, writer and musicological avatar to the immortal P.D.Q. Bach: The marvel of Peter Schickele is not only the variety of his parts but also how well they all fit, the one to another. Composer/performers are a dime a dozen these days, judging from the press handouts and homemade CDs in my daily mail. What propels Schickele out to the front of the crowd is the awareness of music's past, present and plausible future on which his multifarious activities rest. Last week's concert at Zipper Hall, with Schickele participating -- alongside the local-based Armadillo String Quartet and a clutch of soloists in a program of his music, including a couple of world premieres -- was full of delight. More important, it was full of wisdom.
It takes an exceptionally wise composer to offer, on a single evening, his own music drawn from influences as diverse as the Renaissance master Orlando di Lasso and the playing of country fiddlers near Schickele's own home in upstate New York. A piece called Delta Jukebox merged the sounds of two bassoons and piano into a delicious Dixieland takeoff; a string quartet subtitled "A Year in the Country" became an engaging blend of love of nature (a deserving shelf-mate to Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony) and solid Juilliard academe. Best of all was the Serenade for Six, created for the scoring of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet plus bassoon, music that seeks to re-express the pure, blithe beauty of that bygone work and comes admirably close.
Schickele's music goes down easily, and stays put. Its outside sources are easy to spot; its easygoing charms are not beyond a touch of slickness. His spoken program notes are given to garrulity, and there are moments when the ghost of P.D.Q. peeks out between the "serious" lines. Next season Schickele has a residency with the Pasadena Symphony, whose conductor Jorge Mester has been a longtime participant in the comic programs; the many sides of his creative persona will be on view -- glorious, hilarious and most welcome.
The Philharmonic's Chamber Music Society programs had ended the week before, up at the Skirball Center's misdesigned and uncomfortable Ahmanson Hall. Bartók's Second Quartet was the evening's major work, in a taut, gripping performance by violinists Elizabeth Baker and Stacy Wetzel, violist John Hayhurst, and cellist David Garrett. I missed the sublime unity and manic drive the Penderecki Quartet had given the work at LACMA last month, but that would be asking too much from players assembled for this one occasion. The program was otherwise merely pleasant: Dohnanyi's Serenade for string trio and, at the end, Dvorák's G-major Quintet but without the "Notturno" movement that is the work's highlight. The setting was merely unpleasant; I will attend future concerts at this venue only with the greatest reluctance. Just the problem of getting to one's seat requires the skill of a tightrope walker. I overheard comparable ill will expressed by a number of longtime subscribers around me.
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WHAT IS THE WORST PIECE OF MUSIC in general circulation? I keep changing my mind, but after last week's visit to Costa Mesa's Performing Arts Center I think I'll stick with Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony for the time being. Carl St. Clair led his Pacific Symphony on a level of eloquence that the music itself never once attained; this, in case you haven't heard, is an extremely good orchestra these days, under extremely good leadership. Seldom, however, has so much nobility of purpose been squandered on such ignoble merchandise.
On a not-unrelated matter, the Los Angeles Opera finally has its Turandot, if anyone cares, its arrival last weekend enhanced by word of Luciano Berio's much-touted new musical setting for the final scene (the icy Princess, raped by the unnamed Prince, learns to like it) for which the text exists but not Puccini's music. Berio knows the Puccini manner; he has turned up the harmony one or two notches and created an orchestral summation in which some bits previously heard are worked into a complex new texture -- comparable to the final exegesis in Wozzeck -- and during which, on Saturday night at least, the two almost-in-love antagonists faced off, paid their obeisances to the body of the dead Liù, brandished daggers at one another and contrived to look busy as best they could. That might work with proper singing actors; Saturday's audience, however, was obliged to countenance two oversize (but thunderously endowed in the voice department) opera singers doing the old clutch 'n' lurch at each other. That, alas, was just plain silly, to the point that Berio's contribution -- clearly superior to Franco Alfano's finale in common use up to now -- was seriously compromised.
Kent Nagano's conducting was of his usual high standard; it is clearly a new era at the L.A. Opera when a conductor earns cheers before conducting a single note. The production -- by Gian-Carlo del Monaco on Michael Scott's massive, dark sets -- doesn't offend the eye until the last scene, in a drab and dreary throne room with choir stalls left empty while the chorus sings offstage. That chorus had been far more watchable crawling on its collective belly during the great moonrise music in Act 1. Audrey Stottler was the unwieldy Turandot; Franco Farina, a Calaf of comparable grace. Hei-Kyung Hong, the Liù, stole the show -- an easy steal under the circumstances.
The cheers that greeted Esa-Pekka Salonen's Foreign Bodies in its Philharmonic premiere almost reached me in southern Indiana. There, in a town about the size of this page, I was taking in a sanity-restoring festival of old-timey hillbilly music marvelously played, and Purcell (the improbably silly but endearing King Arthur) at BLEMF, the Bloomington Early-Music Festival. After a couple of days with Salonen's score, abetted by a recording a friend had snuck at the performance, I can understand the cheers, and await the work's inevitable next time around. Immediately amazing is the detail, the intricate and exact placement of instruments as minutely specified on the printed page; this is the work of a composer with an astounding ear for sonority, rivaled in our time perhaps only by Pierre Boulez. On this incomplete evidence, I would still value Salonen's LA Variations above this new piece, most of all for the way the former's propulsion stems from the unfolding of the material itself rather than the motoric energy that in the new work seems to be applied from outside. That, however, is an incomplete evaluation that time and further acquaintance will surely amend.