Photo by Anna MeuerRhapsodic Hungarians
Seldom had the Brahms First Symphony sounded more turgid, more irrelevant, than at the end of last week’s Philharmonic concert. Preceding that hapless work, visiting conductor Iván Fischer — master programmer, he — had set the air aglow at Disney Hall with the music of Brahms’ own birthright: the rhythms and harmonies of Hungary’s gypsies, some of it straight, some of it refined and sugarcoated for the serious concert hall. Latter-day gypsies had come over from some of Budapest’s finest bands: a fiddler in the old style, his violinist son, and a virtuoso on the cimbalom. The music they played — a couple of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, even a delicious bit of sentimental drool by Brahms himself — may have been old friends, but the manner of performance, the insinuation in both rhythm and harmony, was so fresh, vital and captivating as to sound utterly new. There was nothing wrong with Fischer’s clear-headed, intelligent projection of the Brahms First after intermission, but it was obvious from the work’s first thudding, constipated C-minor chords that the evening’s fund of authentic ecstasy had come to an end.
The Pasadena’s Symphony’s Jorge Mester, of mixed Mexican and Hungarian ancestry, played the Hungarian card last weekend with the shards of the Viola Concerto left incomplete by Béla Bartók at his death and pieced together by several hands. Clouds of suspicion hang over the work; if its actual authorship isn’t firmly established, its sounds represent some pretty good gestures of the music of its time and place. The world doesn’t have enough viola concertos, nor enough Bartók even ersatz, and the soloist, young Antoine Tamestit, made a convincing case for whatever it was that he performed. Shed a tear, however, for the Pasadena Symphony’s imperfect home, the Civic Auditorium, with its lousy acoustics downstairs and its life-threatening steepness upstairs — while the superior Ambassador Auditorium sits pathetically underused a few blocks away.
No sooner had I let loose a few snide words on the usual low level of Pulitzer Prize–winning music, when word came of a genuinely excellent winner, Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra. At the Philharmonic’s premiere last March, I wrote of Stucky as “a composer with something to say, and a pretty good handle on the language in which to say it,” and it’s nice to be agreed with by distinguished judges. This is only the second Philharmonic commission to cop a Pulitzer; Mel Powell’s Duplicates of 1990 was the first.
When it comes to masterly programming, nobody need defer to MaryAnn Bonino and her “Chamber Music in Historic Sites,” going strong now for well over 30 years. Take this recent event: A sit-down dim sum dinner for 150 or so at Chinatown’s spacious Empress Pavilion (and never mind it being the wrong time of day) was followed, in another part of the same room, by musical dim sum, a program of short pieces for string quartet by Chinese composers plus Ravel, played by the four young Chinese-American siblings who constitute the Ying Quartet. Born in Chicago, trained at Eastman and united as a quartet since 1992, the Yings played beautifully, with a couple of short but strong pieces by Chen Yi and her husband, Zhou Long, as the concert-stealers and two exquisite bits from Ravel’s Quartet — dappled with gorgeous splotches of color no less Oriental than French — not far behind.
Vicki Ray’s recent “Piano Spheres” concert at Zipper was also all about those sight-versus-sound overlaps: short, lovely pieces from all over that drew upon visual inspirations, and David Rosenboom’s longer suite, Twilight Language, which evokes the gestures of 10th-century Tibetan artists. Vicki, too, plans programs with a knack for marvelous freeform artistry; what she draws from her piano always relates in wondrous ways to all the senses. At the end she joined with the splendid tenor Jonathan Mack in Poulenc’s charming song cycle, setting Paul Éluard’s poetry about seven painters: synesthesia writ large.
At LACMA, everybody’s favorite local soprano, Daisietta Kim, persuaded her colleagues in Xtet to allow her Windup, a self-celebration of a lovely and varied career in which she got to sing bits from her repertory (this and that, framed within a Schubert song), with dancing, recitations, projected artwork — an olla podrida of the many ways the remarkable Daisietta has found to enchant us over the 28 years of her performance career so far. I can only hope that her title, Windup, is to be taken in the sense of the star pitcher preparing for action; any other interpretation would be beyond contemplation.
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All in the Family
Over 18 years I’ve been fairly successful in avoiding Pacific Serenades, even though its programs are often attractively baited. This, in case you’ve been even luckier than I in dodging its expert press-agentry, is a movable chamber-music feast, four or five programs a year, repeated in small public venues and in private homes where elegant food is often served. The series is the vanity operation of Mark Carlson, a composer who has in the past been affiliated with UCLA. Over its years of operation, Pacific Serenades has given 18 world premieres of works by Mr. Carlson, although, judging from the works I’ve heard, another way of putting this is that the group has given world premieres of the same work 18 times. The list of donors includes nine Carlsons. Other solid, academic, conservative, eminently trustworthy UCLA composers whose names appear frequently on Pacific Serenades programs include Roger Bourland, Paul Reale, Ian Krouse and Paul Chihara. Hurrah for the C-major scale!
I mentioned bait. There must be money in the Pacific Serenades operation, because the performers are top rank. What finally got me to one of the concerts was the lure of two chamber works: Mozart’s G-minor Piano Quartet and Schumann’s Piano Quintet. The Philharmonic’s Joanne Pearce Martin was the pianist; Miwako Watanabe and Jim Dunham, of the long-lamented Sequoia Quartet, were the first violinist and violist; Connie Kupka and David Speltz rounded out the ensemble. The performance I got to was at the UCLA Faculty Club, a nice, intimate setting for chamber music, and the performances were superb. In the middle there was a new work, Collage, by 35-year-old Pasadena resident Peter Knell — faceless, aimless, harmless music, pure Pacific Serenades stuff as I’ve heard on their discs and, accidentally, elsewhere.
Apropos of discs: I made it a point to tune in on intermission conversations with notepad in hand. I heard the word sciatica 17 times.