Fiddler and the Goof

If you had asked me to dream up 100 truly atrocious ideas for a new piece of music, I still wouldn’t have come up with last week’s Hollywood Bowl catastrophe. Some things are beyond the realm of the conceivable, and in their number I would place the idea of turning Leonard Bernstein’s music from West Side Story into an exercise for solo violin and orchestra, tarted up with the ruffles and flourishes — or should I say “bowings and scrapings”? — of 19th-century virtuoso schlock. A certain William David Brohn is the perpetrator, imposing onto the one score that confirms beyond argument Bernstein’s claim to immortality a process of flagrant down-dumbing that sucks from the great music everything that gives it breath and vitality.

Why has this one score, the one unchallengeable masterwork out of all the uneven Bernstein legacy, been subjected to such blatant misrepresentation over the years? Jerome Robbins first staged the work in 1957, and devised for it an extraordinary language of rhythm and movement; every musical phrase was endowed with overpowering kinetic force. Some, but not all, of that quality endured into the movie, and into restagings under Robbins’ watchful eye through the 1970s. Bernstein himself, however, lost track of the score. Dig out the TV documentary of the 1985 Deutsche Grammophon recording sessions, with ludicrously miscast opera singers in the major roles — Dame Kiri as Maria, for God’s sake! — and Bernstein conducting with Mahlerian turgidity; that sorry commodity could stand as a milepost in the journey of West Side Story to its current disgraceful rebirth as Wieniawski redux.

In an album note for that DG recording, Bernstein reminisced about the “kid quality” of the 1957 original, the very quality that the meddlers since that time, Bernstein included, have managed to subvert. The new West Side Story Suite was inflicted upon the small but ardent Tuesday-night audience by Joshua Bell, an appealing and facile fiddler who has always functioned at the gateway to excellence without often stepping across, and who, at 33 — reckoning from his recent publicity handouts and magazine-cover appearances — is also apparently being marketed for the “kid quality.” You have to wonder, sometimes, whether the music world mightn’t be better off if people stopped kidding one another — or, for that matter, themselves.

Canada’s Keri-Lynn Wilson, 34, was the conductor that night, saddled with the Bernstein stuff in the first half, on her own in the second. Maybe it was following Bernstein that made the Brahms Second Symphony sound so good this time, but I think there was more to it than that. Tall and reed-slender, with a stick technique so clear that even a deaf person could follow her music, Wilson delivered a strong, clean account of this most ingratiating of the Brahms four; for once I was actually sorry that she left out the first-movement repeat. With a long list of past and future gigs from Hong Kong to Verona, Wilson is clearly on her way. It would be nice if that “way” included a return visit here — with a whole program of important music rather than merely half.

At 1735 Micheltorena St. in Silver Lake there still stands the modest house with the significant history: the onetime home of Peter Yates, with Rudolf Schindler’s rooftop studio where the “Evenings on the Roof” concerts — ancestors of the current Monday Evening Concerts at LACMA — were born in 1939. The studio could accommodate about 100 listeners, at 50 cents a pop; the concerts afforded Los Angeles its first hearings of Bartók, Ives, Schoenberg and the growing list of Europeans whom Mr. Hitler had sent to our shores. Yates moved on in the 1960s, and the people who bought the house turned the studio into a rental apartment. When Dorothy Crawford, whose Evenings on and off the Roof tells of the origin of new-music awareness in Los Angeles, asked the then-owners if she could see the house and the studio, she was denied admission.

Now a pleasanter man, named Thom Andersen, owns the house, and with his forbearance the Friends of the Schindler House returned music to the upstairs studio for the first time in over half a century. A fair-sized audience paid a good deal more than 50 cents, but got wine and designer water, plus a little extra entertainment in the form of a highly audible street fair on Sunset Boulevard just below. The local composer Daniel Rothman arranged an evening that included new works for cello by Austrian composers performed by the excellent Michael Moser, and two by America’s own Alvin Lucier, scratched and banged out by the indefatigable Art Jarvinen and yet another cellist, Lynn Angebranndt.

It was, I am sorry to inform you, a rather awful concert, all the worse if — like me and the great Leonard Stein and a few other venerables in the audience — you remembered Peter Yates and his missionary zeal. A half-hour of Jarvinen banging ding-ding-ding on an oversize triangle as the first of the Lucier pieces, and Peter would have put his house on the market a lot sooner than he did. Forty-five minutes of Angebranndt’s raspy electronic cello oozing upward over two octaves in the second Lucier, and Peter would have halved the asking price. The room, its outlines simple, with its sloping roof designed to copy the angle of an open piano lid, seemed to possess remarkable acoustics, but with almost everything coming out of loudspeakers, that really didn’t matter. I want another concert at that house, with the great, substantial music that is still being composed that reflects back on the heritage of Ives and Bartók and Stravinsky and Boulez and Elliott Carter, whose music once thrived in the light of “Roof” and “Monday Evening.” After that, Thom Andersen can have his house back.


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