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Answering Back

Large events demand large gestures. At the Hollywood Bowl, where Wynton Marsalis’ “joyous, affirmative” All Rise was already on the schedule, some oratory by Marsalis and Esa-Pekka Salonen refocused the work as a response to the horrible tragedies of two days before. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra rushed the Beethoven “Eroica” onto its opening program. The New York Philharmonic scheduled the Brahms Requiem onto its nationwide telecast, turning it into Dead From Lincoln Center, where a re-assertion of life might have been preferable. At the Bowl, at the Opera, probably at all public events, the moment of silence followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner” in full solemnity was the order of the day, and the more singable “God Bless America” has also been taken on as surrogate anthem.

Marsalis‘ two-hour oratorio, which calls for vocal soloists, chorus, jazz ensemble and symphony orchestra, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and performed by them two years ago. It came here because here is where Sony has been recording it -- possibly on the money it saved by dropping its complete-works-of-Ligeti project midway. Its ancestry, writes Marsalis in a program note, is the blues; to prove its kinship to that powerful, assertive 12-bar musical form, it contains 12 movements. (Shakespeare’s Fluellen, that avatar of everything pedantic, proves the relationship between Henry V and Alexander the Great by pointing out that both were born in states containing rivers.)

Nothing I know claiming a blues background, not even Gershwin‘s Rhapsody, strays so far and so aimlessly from its source as the excruciatingly ponderous wanderings in this piece. If you watched Marsalis in his slick, cliche-ridden contributions to the Ken Burns jazz documentary on PBS, perhaps the pretensions of All Rise won’t surprise you. Marsalis is an exciting jazz trumpeter, and it‘s strange that his new piece accords him so little time in the spotlight. Most of the time, instead, we are confronted with his other side, the o’erleaping ambitions (Shakespeare, again) of the multifaceted public image he has created for himself. He was also, once, an exciting presenter of music for young audiences, and evidence of his good works exists on videos.

But his talents stop short of omnipotence, and the churnings and posturings in this latest work, the self-conscious extensions of uninteresting material, prolong what might have worked in 20 minutes into two-plus hours of racking boredom. I hate to invoke odious similarities, but the work I kept thinking about during this long, painful evening was Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass. At least Marsalis was savvy enough to end the piece with a rooty-tooty gospel number that invites the audience to hand-clap along and then to keep on clapping. That’s show biz for you. And the rules of show biz also compel me to note that participants in the event included Marsalis‘ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir, and several choruses from Cal State Northridge under Dr. Paul Smith. A fine, dark-voiced contralto named Cynthia Hardy deserved far more solo passages than she was allotted. Salonen and the Philharmonic did what they had to, but left me with suspicions that the weight of the huge orchestra -- for all the “masterpiece” aura it contributed -- was exactly what was wrong with the piece, that a lot less might have been a lot more.

The Chamber Orchestra’s opening-night program began delightfully, if that‘s the right word: Jeffrey Kahane and Lang Lang launching into “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a piano duet with the orchestra joining in. This led to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, played as movingly as I can ever remember, with the harrowing beauty of its long interwoven melodic lines extending toward infinity and the audience observing the requested silence. There followed a brief Kahane solo, an improv on “America, the Beautiful” that gave shape to this small, elegant celebration. At concert‘s end there was Kahane’s take on the “Eroica”: brash, somewhat short of breath, the angry thrusts in the “Funeral March” quite dazzling, some of the rest -- the onrush of dissonance in the first movement and the resolution later in that movement -- blurred by excessive speeds and some balance problems that allowed horns and bassoons to overpower the rest of the ensemble.

In between came Lang Lang and Chopin‘s E-Minor Concerto, music of consummate prettiness that can become a gooey mess if played merely correctly. Not so this young (19) Chinese phenom, who not only played the bejesus out of the music but acted it out as well. I am not always a devotee of excessive calisthenics by performing artists at work, and you can check me out on the subject in my files on Olli Mustonen, among others. Yet I got the sense from this immensely talented youngster that he not only knows his Chopin backward and forward, but also knows how silly some of it can be. He played the work marvelously, with great regard for its broad tunes and for spaces in between, but played it also as if sharing a splendid joke with all of us out front. The crowd loved it, I loved it, and at the end everybody seemed to know that the only possible encore would be a 50-finger transcription of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” That’s what we got. Woo-eee!

If the recent disasters kept you from flying up for the San Francisco Opera‘s Arshak II, count your blessings. Aside from the questionable circumstance of an outside group buying its way onto a tax-supported stage -- the well-heeled Armenian community nationwide, which pungled up a seven-figure sum to persuade the departing general manager, Lotfi Mansouri, to stage this opera of dubious provenance -- the other question must also be asked: Confronted with this piece of tepid Italianate factory-made note-spinning from 1868, without even any Armenian identity in its music, who could have seen the work as stage-worthy for one of this country’s most distinguished companies? If this is the bundle Mansouri left on his successor‘s doorstep, he needs to answer to Sanitation.

The composer, Tigran Chukhadjian, composed the opera as Arsace II, to an Italian libretto; its central figure is, indeed, Armenia’s fourth-century tyrant leader, and the plot concerns his overthrow. In 1998 a Chukhadjian research center in Paris got Mansouri to commission an Armenian translation of the original Italian, an act comparable, say, to translating Verdi‘s Nabucco into Babylonian. This new translation is the commodity touted as a “world premiere” by the San Francisco Opera. (There is, actually, another Armenian-language version, created by Soviet Armenians and still performed in Yerevan and other cities; it turns the villain Arshak into a Stalinesque superhero.)

That’s more than you want to know, I‘ll bet, about ArsaceArshak II, except to note that 1868, the year of its composition, was also the year of Boris Godunov. Priorities?


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