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Disney Nights

Three diverse concerts in four nights at Disney: proof enough of the splendid variety of music in these parts — even in May, when the season is supposed to be winding down. The difference in the sounds echoing through these marvelous premises in close succession was, to put it mildly, considerable.

From Behind the CurtainIn 1987, the great opera director and bridge builder Sarah Caldwell conceived a plan: a yearly exchange between Soviet and American composers, each group coming through the Iron Curtain with music and musicians previously unknown on the other side. The plan lasted exactly one year, but in Boston that year, we learned several new names and some fascinating new music. The Boston Symphony played symphonies by Alfred Schnittke; there was chamber music by Sofia Gubaidulina. Both composers — dowdy, gray, as if in their first time out of the mineshaft — were among the many in attendance. The Soviet Information Agency had set up a listening room with tapes. Gubaidulina’s music — including a wonderful concerto for bassoon and low strings, which deserves new performances — amazed us all. Now that both composers and their countrymen are old friends on Western programs, it’s amazing to realize how recently hearing their music seemed so difficult, even dangerous.

That’s what’s behind the Philharmonic’s title, “Shadow of Stalin,” for its current, fascinating concert series. Even after Stalin’s death, Iron Curtain composers needed to resort to certain subterfuges to cover up their most serious creative impulses. Both Gubaidulina and Schnittke composed film scores for their major income, along with other “happy” music on Khrushchev-era socialist-realist lines, in order to be able to scoot into dark rooms and compose works such as we heard on Tuesday’s program. Gubaidulina’s 1979 In Croce is an amazing work for cello (the Philharmonic’s Ben Hong) and organ (Mark Robson), ecstatic and ecstatically played: hypnotic, intense, an unceasing 19-minute mantra. Concordanza, an earlier (1971) work for chamber ensemble, held the attention in other ways: gritty, unyielding, unsmiling, like my early memories of the composer herself.

Schnittke’s Fourth Symphony of 1984 ended the program, a work built out of bell sonorities and, at the end, brief snips of wordless chant, convoluted and, to my mind, not likable. A big-boned performance under the Philharmonic’s associate conductor Alexander Mickelthwate stated its case; other works by Schnittke — including a boisterous First Symphony that includes a rock band, a marching band and a jazz band, all of them bursting into a garland of quotations from symphonies of the past — strike me as considerably more endearing.

EpitomeTwo major creative spirits collaborated in the spellbinding music that hammered at the beams of Disney Hall on Wednesday, and at the collective souls of the sellout crowd within those walls. One was the spirit of Charles Mingus, bygone but endearingly alive, whose variorum collection of music — some his very own, some snuck in from revered other sources — bore the collective title of Epitaph. The other was Gunther Schuller, jazz and classical scholar, musician under many hats, coiner of the term “Third Stream,” who had assembled and edited the Mingus collection for a performance in 1989, then subjected the work to 18 more years of expansion and “creative evolution.” With his help, Mingus’ widow, Sue, has organized a 31-member jazz ensemble whose musicians, Schuller notes, “play jazz that is even more advanced than what Mingus wrote,” and turned out a three-hour chilling masterwork, which in its frequent great moments simply astounds any aware listener with the strength and resolution of its complexity at one moment, its quiet, wrenching beauty at another.

I write, bear in mind, as a newcomer and enchanted discoverer. I remember walking away from my friends’ records of progressive jazz — Mingus among them — in college days, when I should have been receptive. Now I enjoy being transformed, of discovering — in my head and in my spinal column — the hand of a real composer, as plates of genius brass clash against one another in the Mingus “Better Get It in Your Soul” or as horizons darkly vibrate in his “Chill of Death.” There was much to be learned, too, in the variety in the Mingus grab bag: the serene, dark lyricism of an Ellington number, the guileless charm in a Jelly Roll Morton blues. This was an event full of varied racketing; Charlie Mingus, who spoke of Epitaph as a “symphony,” surely smiled his approval.

Mixed BagTime has run out on Time Cycle. Lukas Foss’ adventure in contemporary chic — fluky rhythmic patterns, odd placements on the stage, the players called upon to whisper — served the needs of the Bernstein crowd in the 1960s to pass as new-music supporters. It was the centerpiece of Thursday’s curious collection of new and not-quite-new music, and its struggles toward with-it status turned it into the evening’s most old-fashioned music. Even the delightful bluster of Samuel Barber’s authentically hoary Toccata Festiva, which began the program, with its bingety-bang organ cadenza nobly dispatched by Simon Preston, was at least an honest work of its kind. Not even Dawn Upshaw’s brave management of the Foss vocal tricks could render that music honest.

But Upshaw was also there to sing the music of Osvaldo Golijov, and that is the heaven-made collaboration of our time: a wonderfully perceptive composer whose lyric sense is shaped and colored by a particular “rainbow of a voice” (his words). Golijov has orchestrated three of his songs into a cycle lasting nearly half an hour; the songs, in three languages, summon up the full range of a singer’s versatility. The middle song, “Lúa Descolorida,” is familiar from Upshaw’s performances at Ojai, and it racks the soul: the lament of a tortured conscience under an unforgiving moon. A charming Yiddish lullaby begins the cycle; sad poetry of Emily Dickinson ends it. A DG recording with Upshaw is out this month. When you hear it, and fall under the spell of that “rainbow,” you’ll know why I had to forgo the West Side Story dances at the concert’s end, the very bejesus out of which I’m sure Maestro Mickelthwate conducted.


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