Bang on Your Ear
Photo by Peter Serling
Into the Future
New York has its Bang on a Can; we have our California EAR Unit: daredevil small ensembles dedicated to what-the-hell -service to whatever new music, of whatever provenance (and the more challenging the better), that happens to cross their line of sight. By the nature of the beast, both groups present concert programs heavily resonant with overtones of futility. But these are the ensembles most major cities support at least one such group, either out on their own or based at a school that offer the best hope for musics future. The percentage of bad music to good may be high at these concerts as it surely was at new-music concerts in 1904 and 1804 as well as all years in between but all that really matters is that it all gets to be heard, at least once.
Both groups were active on our stages last week: the EAR Unit starting its 18th (!) season in residence at LACMA, the Bang on a Can All-Stars in town for a one-night stand at UCLAs Royce Hall. Both programs had their downside; each was redeemed by one special short work well worth the carfare. The EAR Unit played Eve Beglarians Cave, a 10-or-so-minute work of great delicacy and charm, inspired so the composer tells us by conversations shes been having, on the subject of souls, with a 6-year-old friend. On a program with its share of showoff and overstuffed pieces including one that dragged a bunch of full-size bicycles onto the stage for percussion effects that a few normal orchestral gadgets could just as easily have provided in far less space this one shapely, expressive piece, at just the right length, was the one to remember.
On the Bang on a Can program there was a tight, tense, glorious rumpus of a piece called Workers Union, one of the great Dutch composer Louis Andriessens early experiments with indeterminacy in this case, everything specified except the actual pitches. This, once again, was the one piece to remember and take home: 10 minutes or so of on-the-chest pounding that you never wanted to stop. The nostalgia buffs turned out to whoop themselves hoarse for Philip Glass, the evenings "special guest." He arrived with two large chunks of More of the Same, which seemed to gladden a few hearts but not all. Glass was also alone onstage to play a bunch of his Piano Etudes, music so amateurishly fashioned (think Yanni for beginners) that Ive never understood how he let them off his worktable.
The Philharmonics "Silenced Voices" observances, music by composers proscribed and, in some cases, murdered by Nazis, came to a quiet, moving end at the first of this seasons Chamber Music Society concerts which have moved this season to Disney from their more intimate venue at the University of Judaism. Two of the works, both handsome and deeply moving beyond the matter of their history, were actually composed during imprisonment at Theresienstadt: the Third String Quartet of Viktor Ullmann and a Fantasy and Fugue, also for quartet, by Gideon Klein. Both works have been recorded, by the way, on Koch Classics. The stylistic differences between the two are also interesting: Ullmann, very much a musical descendant of Janácek; Klein, just as clearly touched by Schoenbergian atonality. That makes all the more poignant the tragedy of these composers loss and that of Erwin Schulhoff, whose wonderful use of jazz turned up in other works in the Philharmonic series; these were composers with something strong and original on their minds, and the course of 20th-century music would surely have been altered by their survival.
On the matter of Disney Hall, conscience dictates that I pursue further the vagaries of my shifting outlook on that massive pipe organ, which, obviously, is not going to go away anytime soon. My distaste for pipe organs in general, and for all but a notable if minuscule percentage of their repertory, brought the expected response, including one published letter a couple of weeks ago whose writer obviously knows nothing about how the instruments are constructed and what they do. But now I have to confess that on Halloween night, the halls management gave it over to a revival of that hoar-encrusted silent-movie masterpiece, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera (the one with Lon Chaney and all the teeth), and it was stupendous. Clark Wilson was on hand to use the pipe organ in exactly the right way, with tremolos and crashes; youd think old Rudolph Wurlitzer himself was up on the stage pulling the stops. The score was the classic Gaylord Carter concoction, with lots of Gounods Faust stirred in to go with the Paris Opera setting: a perfect match. Eat yer heart out, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Time and Truth
Musica Angelica has progressed from a well-intended gathering of early-music enthusiasts to a serious and important early-music ensemble, the best of its kind in these parts. Michael Eagan, the groups co-founder and music director, died suddenly this past summer, and while this was a blow to all who knew him and admired his founders zeal, his passing marks a milestone. The orchestras horizons in the past couple of years have notably broadened; this has been borne out by the presence here of major conductors, including Britains Harry Bicket and Germanys Martin Haselböck. The latter has now been appointed music director effective September 2005. (He is also scheduled as one of Disney Halls organ recitalists, on February 20.)
On a recent weekend, Haselböck led the orchestra and a vocal group in a Handel rarity well worth the revivalist zeal, the composers first oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth, composed during his Italian sojourn some years before his conquest of London. The work comes three decades before Messiah, and it shows. The text is a long very long, at times sequence of metaphors, in which the characters of Beauty, Pleasure, Truth and Time argue for moral supremacy; by the time nearly three hours pass, nobody much cares. The elegance of the music, mingled with moments of radiant beauty, makes full amends; that beauty was underscored by the clear, woodsy sound of violins under a baroque bow and the delicate hooting of Haselböcks small positiv organ. The singers, strangely got up in plastic wrap, were several notches above okay: Katerina Beranova as Beauty, Catherine Webster as Pleasure, countertenor Jason Snyder as Truth, Gerald Gray as Time. Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, the orchestras treasurable concertmaster, made the passage of Time all the more Triumphant.
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