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Coiled Serpents

Minimally Elderly

How the decades fly past! Steve Reich turns 70, with Phil Glass in hot pursuit; John Adams glides into 60 with nary a wrinkle. Reich’s new choral work resounds at next Sunday’s Master Chorale concert; Adams’ classics retains their bloom at a couple of Philharmonic events; the mail, as usual, delivers a new CD from Glass. Whatever your personal take on their music, elder-statesmanhood has fallen easily on all three.

The memories that remain from last year’s “Minimalist Jukebox” at the Philharmonic celebrate the longevity of the creative urge: something driving, unshakable. It’s an energy built into this music; it fueled the audience rebellions when I first heard Adams’ Grand Pianola and Reich’s Four Organs in New York in the 1980s. It echoes in the pounding on my ribs that still awakens me some nights, and in the chords that hammer the Harmonielehre into life. It stoked the shared delight eight years ago, when Esa-Pekka Salonen and our (his) Philharmonic gave Adams’ Naïve and Sentimental Music its first hearing, and that delight returned when those performers brought that music to Disney Hall this past weekend — where, of course, the piece truly belongs. This time the fantasy of Adams at work on the score, driven by poetic visions from the writings of Schiller, was further realized in the achievement of the acoustic ideal for which this lavish orchestral creation was actually composed.

Schiller’s essay (“On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry’) proposes a contrast of poetic attitudes; Adams, already skilled — as in Nixon in China — in the musical presentation of dichotomies, goes on from there. As from the clash of flint against steel, the conflagration grows; the conflict in the work’s final pages is terrifying. In his own eloquent notes Adams writes of the work as a quest for a balance, perhaps unreachable at a time when the writing of grandiose orchestral music has faded from the landscape. This, he admits, might be “a deeply sentimental act.” It could also be a naive act, “because speaking through the medium of the orchestra has always been a natural and spontaneous gesture for me . . .” True enough; what justifies the existence of a 50-minute work for huge symphony orchestra (plus a gathering of exotic percussion and a sampler or two) is the mastery, the insouciant ease, of the work itself.

Naïve and Sentimental — last heard here at its premiere in the Chandler Pavilion in 1999 and therefore not properly heard until now — is the bulwark of this week’s Adams celebrations. From the congenial throb of its opening to the crashing, intimidating barrier against daylight that it throws up 50 minutes later, the music constantly astonishes. Its orchestral colors are dense and ravishing. Peer around its edges at your peril. Its title is elusive; there is nothing naive here. Rather it is the menace of coiled serpents, eternally fascinating, a challenge and a tribute to a superlative orchestra and its conductor, from a composer who knows what they can do and delights in his power to engage their best.

Beethoven’s Second Symphony shared the program. Two centuries, plus or minus, separate the works, yet there were challenges of a sort. Here too was a brash innovator trying things out, using the woodwinds in particular to fill the orchestral landscape with new sounds, new relationships. Sir Donald Tovey, my favorite writer about early classical music, wrote about the “great bassoon joke,” and the Beethoven Second is full of them, odd little veerings into the middle of next week, heralded by a chuckle from the bassoons and landing somewhere delightful, somewhere totally unexpected. Salonen’s way with these early, even-numbered Beethoven symphonies — this, and No. 4 as well — is always admirably energetic and richly humorous, and so it was this time.

Time’s End

Writing about Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is no easy matter. The symbolism in Messiaen’s apocalyptic visions is so intensely personal that you accept it fully or dismiss it as a fanatic’s ravings. If the latter, you must then deal with the music itself, its solo lines and its deeply poignant conversations of a melodic and harmonic beauty so profound that they sometimes hurt the ear. Desperately seeking somebody’s writing to crib from to fill my report on last week’s performance by Philharmonic chamber musicians, I found almost nothing on my otherwise well-stocked bookshelves. It’s as though my fellow critics share my fear of writing about this intensely beautiful, aching music.

This cannot be. Someone must write about the power of this music on purely musical grounds: the rich, flowing melody of the cello as, with piano, it extols the Eternity of Jesus in its simple, folklike tune. Someone must smile along as all instruments join in a kind of rustic jiggety-jog. Someone, most of all, must recoil at the blinding energy of the clarinet solos — wondrously played on this occasion by Lorin Levee — which burn into the imagination as if applying the Stigmata. (Is there any other music in the world more purely, upliftingly painful — to the ear, to the soul?)

A most distinguished concert, this — with the Messaien preceded, as was proper, by the Quartet of Claude Debussy. Two weeks ago I had deplored the tendency of Chamber Music Society audiences to applaud between movements, in this most fragile repertoire. This night, violinist Mitch Newman made a preconcert speech gently slapping the audience on its collective wrist. It worked.

Tree on the Move

The splendid Jacaranda Concerts still wait out the completion of remodeling at their Santa Monica venue; last Sunday’s concert found activities transferred to the Cypress Recital Hall at Cal State Northridge. A big and loyal crowd had found its way. Five sets of fingers were involved in the kind of varied piano program that only a true music-loving connoisseur could concoct; that has been the peculiar magic of these concerts from their beginning. The room at Northridge was pleasant enough, as school auditoriums go. (CSUN soon breaks ground for a major performing arts center, to open in 2009.) But Jacaranda’s home base — Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian, with its elegant small organ and its intimate layout — is a special place, and it will be good to get back, on April 7.

The program was the usual Jacaranda assortment of varied pleasures. Any concert that includes Schubert’s F-minor Fantasy, the overpowering piano duet from his last year, which moves from plaintive outcry to its final fugue that ties you in knots, needs nothing more. Hearing this work as an undergrad had caused me to change my major from pre-med to music. Sixty years later, the playing of Gloria Cheng and Robert Edward Thies confirmed the soundness of my decision. Eduardo Delgado’s Piazzolla and Ginastera, Scott Dunn’s Copland and Ives and some Liszt transformed into high-caloric goo by Steven Vanhauwaert added to the afternoon’s absurdities and its high delights.


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