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Bliss

Photo by Dario Acosta

Two concerts, on successive nights of a recent weekend, were enough to restore anyone’s faith in the continued strengths of our music, our music makers and the people who make music happen. Both drew capacity, cheering crowds. I’ll write about them in reverse chronology, according to the relative age of the music itself.

Minimal
On the Saturday (10/22), at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, the treasurable series known as “Jacaranda” began its third season with a whiz-bang program of American minimalism: John Adams’ Shaker Loops in the original version for eight players in a daredevil performance without the usual safety net of a conductor; Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments; a small and, perhaps, expendable Philip Glass organ solo; and — wonder of wonders — a suite concocted out of the “knee plays” from the Glass–Robert Wilson Einstein on the Beach, the most extensive hearing of anything from that legendary, elusive bedrock masterwork to make it to these shores ever.

Imagine! Einstein on the Beach, finally here! We were doled out only 40 minutes out of 300, to be sure, and without the spaceship, the locomotive, the crazed dancers acting out the numerals, the recitation — 39 times repeated — about bathing caps and the Beach. Yet the sense of the work was somehow there, with Gail Eichenthal and Ken Page among the narrators to deliver the frenzied verbiage and with Jacaranda’s string players — Sara Parkins, Joel Pargman and Sarah Thornblade — to stand in for Dr. Einstein’s fiddling. Jacaranda’s heroic founders, master mover Patrick Scott and conductor-organist Mark Hilt, had had to move mountains to pry some of the work’s tattered manuscripts out of the publisher’s vaults. To their greater glory, this third season — seven imaginatively planned small-ensemble programs, each a connoisseur’s wet dream — began, as it deserved, with a capacity crowd. All-Schubert comes next, November 12: concert planning to die for.

Maximal
If the sense of the minimalist composers rests on a distancing of self from expression, the marvel of Osvaldo Golijov’s music, brought forward more clearly in every new major work, is a fascinating process of self-revelation of his own variegated heritage, gorgeously made clear in one work after another. Ayre — you could call it a 40-minute song cycle — compiles texts from Hispanic, Sephardic and Israeli sources with some words by Golijov himself. The passions are bitter, brutal and sardonic, often hidden behind a wash of angelic simplicity. All of this relates to Golijov’s own backgrounds — Eastern European, Israeli, Argentine, suburban Bostonian — and the enthusiasm with which he has allowed them to guide his pen. One further dimension is the extraordinary amalgam of his multifaceted expressive language with the artistic impulse of singer Dawn Upshaw, whose musical soul Golijov’s music has deepened and strengthened into one of the treasures of our time.

Upshaw’s performance of Ayre has just been released on an essential Deutsche Grammophon disc, along with Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, a similar enterprise of a generation ago. Her singing of the Golijov at Disney Hall (10/21) had the same vocal magic; alas, the participating instrumental ensemble did not quite. Instead of the rhapsodic mania of klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer on the disc (from the ensemble Andalucian Dogs), there was the merely polite work of Michael J. Maccaferri and his colleagues from Eighth Blackbird. Instead of the marvelous Berio suite on the disc, there was more of the Blackbird repertory, a gooey conceit by a certain Derek Bermel, who is mostly memorable as an intrusive presence on otherwise memorable concerts in these parts in previous years. In fairness, I must note that guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla, from the aforementioned Andalucian Dogs, was on hand to join with Upshaw in some solo songs and perform with the ensemble, but that marvelous disc has spoiled me.

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It had been 25 years and counting since I last heard, and was deeply challenged by, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra; a couple of CalArts undergrads performed it then at one of the school’s new-music festivals. It was one of the events that convinced me that California and I deserved each other, and I moved out here a year later. At this season’s first “Piano Spheres” concert (10/4), with Vicki Ray and Liam Viney at the pianos and Shaun Naidoo managing what have now become the charming, old-fashioned electronics, the piece sounded like an old friend, a predictable and beautifully worked-out set of variations with, in the final few minutes, a virtuosic scramble that old Franz Liszt would have been proud to acknowledge. There are works of Stockhausen that, in my opinion, render him certifiable; Mantra isn’t of their number. It lasts a mere 60 minutes, and deserves a place in the repertory.

On 10/17, the embattled “Monday Evening Concerts” began what might be their last stand (and might not) with the kind of off-the-wall program that did full honor to the late Dorrance Stalvey’s imagination and drew a crowd large enough to honor his memory. The phenomenal Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, whom Stalvey had first brought to our midst, was on hand with works of his own that seemed to resound from far deeper than the confines of his fabulous instrument. Joining him, with even more profound resonances, was the American cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, she of the double-bow techniques, who studied with, and spreads awareness of, the Italian visionary composer Giacinto Scelsi. From his works, suspended as they are between the boundaries of familiar harmonies and, thus, outside anyone else’s kind of music, Uitti has fashioned a Trilogy of throbbing, radiant colors that seems to probe endlessly into strange, dark regions and end up in realms of beauty beyond rational criticism (as you may have noticed). And this, says an art museum’s management, has no place within its walls.

Washington’s National Symphony came to town (10/19) for the first-ever transcontinental junket in its 75 years, and with our hometown boy Leonard Slatkin in charge and the First Symphony of John Corigliano as its tastiest offering. The work has earned both the composer and Slatkin their Grammys and their international huzzahs and, as Slatkin told the audience twice at Disney (at the pre-concert talk and again from the podium), has earned more performances in its 15 years than any major work in the past whatever. It is possible to believe all that, and still find the music shallow, contrived, agonizingly protracted and, at many junctures, ugly beyond recall. So turns the world.


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