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East Comes West

Photo by Heny Fair

In its several years’ existence, the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival has staked out a broad and interesting territory, while expanding the very scope of its title: Aaron Copland at the movies, Antonin Dvorák in New York, Bill Bolcom’s entanglement with William Blake’s poetry, and — for two splendid weeks earlier this month — the Chinese diaspora to America. The concerts were nicely planned and well attended. The ideal now would be for some of its excellent new music, most of it unknown beforehand to audiences from Orange County and beyond, to find its way toward second hearings. The overall message from this festival is that the Chinese composers who have settled in our midst in the last several years constitute a potent creative force. Those who lament the assumed demise of the forward impulse in serious new music would do well to pay heed to what we have been hearing down off the 405 these past weeks.

Pay heed, in particular, to the music of Chen Yi, with whom I chatted in these pages a couple of weeks ago. She is one of the several composers sprung from Cultural Revolution servitude in the 1980s, later educated at Columbia and Juilliard, who have evolved a strong manner of merging Chinese folk background, including a purposeful harmonic crudity, into a Western orchestral mastery shot through with dark glints. For the festival’s one commissioned work, she came up with a dazzling virtuoso piece for supercellist Yo-Yo Ma, a hand-in-glove collaboration. I had my reservations a couple of years ago about Yo-Yo Ma’s “Silk Road” programs, which struck me as a tad exploitative and self-conscious; Chen Yi’s new Ballad, Dance and Fantasy is superior stuff for composer and cellist/collaborator, an extraordinary synthesis of Chinese melodic essence and manic contemporaneity that reaches beyond borders, partakes of anything that comes under the rubric of “music,” pauses now and then for moments of sweetness, regains a dizzying momentum and, at a breath-stopping end, simply and wondrously evaporates.

Apparently unwilling to trust its own musical resources, the Pacific Symphony billed this final program not for its extraordinary musical content but as “The Great Yo-Yo Ma and Friends,” and on that strength it did, indeed, sell out the monster space of Segerstrom Hall for two performances. There was other splendid music on that program: Zhou Long’s rich, intense Two Poems From Tang, and Bright Sheng’s tragic tone poem China Dreams, music that seems suffused with the sadness of a composer happy in a new home but unable to forget an old one. Zhou Long, by the way, is married to Chen Yi; speculate for a moment on the pleasures and dangers of marriage between two composers of similar high quality.

Given a gathering of half a dozen concert events in as many musical styles, the freelancers that make up the Pacific Symphony acquitted themselves in, let’s say, not-bad fashion, as did yeoman conductor Carl St. Clair. Again, the festival was put together with high imagination — surrounded by talks, demonstrations of Chinese instruments and art forms, and children’s concerts — by the New York–based Joseph Horowitz, who is what you might call a musical sociologist. His books deal with craze: the exploitation around the aged and near-senile Arturo Toscanini by the media, the bloodsucking at piano competitions (the Van Cliburn in particular), and the mania for Richard Wagner’s music that drove a generation of New York matrons bonkers in a Coney Island concert hall around 1890. You shouldn’t buy a concert ticket without first reading one of Joe Horowitz’s books.

 

On the matter of Van Cliburn, by the way, and on the matter of media fame: The last time Los Angeles saw the efforts of conductor Vassily Sinaisky was on a sad evening at the Hollywood Bowl in 1984. Sinaisky was leading his Moscow Philharmonic; Van Cliburn was the soloist, back after a long time away, in a heroic program of two concertos; the event was part of the World Cup celebrations. But the Cup that night ranneth over — Cliburn zonked out at intermission; bye-bye Sinaisky.

Last week Sinaisky returned to our own Philharmonic, standing in for Esa-Pekka Salonen to lead that media phenomenon known as the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony. Salonen’s reason for bowing out was his need for time to work on his new piece due here in June; if you know the Shostakovich Seventh, you should know that nobody needs an excuse for dropping out. If ever a work has survived on its fame and not on a shred of musical integrity, let it be this.

The fame, of course, is delicious. Summer 1942; Leningrad under siege; heroic Shostakovich remaining behind to complete the work, which is then smuggled by microfilm (via Tehran) to New York, where Toscanini and Stokowski are engaged in a gigantic hair-pull over first-performance rights. (Toscanini wins; the performance, now on CD, is a travesty.) Shostakovich makes the cover of Time. All that is lacking from any of this is the matter of quality. Crude, vulgar, monumentally dull in every page (except for a rather charming bass-clarinet solo in the second movement), the Shostakovich Seventh is an extraordinary example of music that bloats itself on its own fame. The Philharmonic has had the charming (if not entirely workable) idea of preceding each symphony in its Shostakovich survey with the string quartet of the same number, played in the pre-concert spot by members of the orchestra. The Seventh Quartet dates from 1960, 18 years after the symphony of that number, and it was rather amusing the other night to watch the evening’s speaker, musicologist Robert Fink, twist himself into knots trying to establish connections (which, of course, do not exist) between the gentle sarcasms of the lovely quartet and the bull-roars in the symphony.

“There is a river in Macedon and a river in Monmouth,” spouts Shakespeare’s pedantic Fluellen in trying to liken Alexander the Great to Henry the Fifth. It didn’t work then, either.


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