Forgive and Forget
THERE'S SOMETHING TO BE SAID -- although I'm not sure exactly what -- for the process of confronting the spirits of eminent dead composers with the less-than-eminent works that they themselves disowned or at least surpassed. Some will argue that latter-day stagings (whatever the cost) of Verdi's early versions of, say, Macbeth or Don Carlos help us assess the stature of his later revisions. We cannot be truly moved by the Beethoven Ninth, others will claim, until we digest the banalities in his Triple Concerto. Sir Michael Tippett reaped his share of acclaim for the music he composed a decade or two after his early choral piece A Child of Our Time; therefore, to some musical minds at least, that justifies resurrection of the terribly earnest but hopelessly clumsy early work that sprawled across most of the Phil harmonic program a couple of weeks ago, in a presentation as misguided as the work itself. Last weekend the Pasadena Symphony dug down into the mothballs and dragged out the 11th Symphony of Shostakovich, a blotch on the composer's memory that would serve him far better unexhumed. That sorry excuse for a symphony, at least, fared better under Jorge Mester's probing baton than Tippett's mournful exercise had at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
You cannot question the impulse behind either work. On the one hand there is Tippett at 34 -- card-carrying pacifist, deeply shocked by the rise of Nazism and specifically the "Kristallnacht" pogroms perpetrated in 1938 to avenge a young Jew's murder of a minor Nazi official -- moved to fashion a broad, humanitarian statement, an oratorio with Bach and Handel as role models but addressed to its own time and, therefore, drawing upon languages of contemporary tragedy: spirituals, Hebrew chant, blues. Then there is Shostakovich, older and battle-scarred from his struggles for self-fulfillment against official Soviet repression, his hand now strengthened by the death of his nemesis Stalin, cutting loose with this unruly venture, the worst by far of his symphonies before or after, a 65-uninterrupted-minute glob of orchestral poster art to honor the memory of a similar atrocity, the 1905 massacre of civilians by the czar's legions at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
Okay, so both works (of exactly the same length, by the way) -- and a long list of similarly undeserving revenants that I may get around to deploring one of these days -- give off a certain aura that might pass for historic allure. The Tippett is a one-of-a-kind hybrid that seeks to mingle the accents of black gospel singing with Britain's long-standing fetish for big, blocky choral music by the truckload; surely the possibility of mining multicultural gold occurred to whichever of the Philharmonic's recent managements dreamed up the event. Two things got in the way. One was the prissy prosody in Tippett's own attempt to re-create a gospel-singing style from an ocean away -- as Virgil Thomson had managed so well, on more congenial turf, in his Four Saints in Three Acts. The other was the Philharmonic's egregious goof in not booking an authentic, roof-raising gospel choir to sing along with Sir Roger Norrington and the folks onstage, perhaps energizing their music making a tad. Instead we got the polite, ecumenical accents of flat-out concert singers, the Gwen Wyatt Chorale, which blended seamlessly into the familiar mush of the Master Chorale and which, on its own, gave half a program of hit tunes about as authentically gospel as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is baroque. Later in his career, by the way -- best of all in his opera The Knot Garden, with its distinctive infiltrations of American and Afro pop and blues -- Tippett achieved a far more artful reconciliation with the many musics of his world. A Child of Our Time, however, was not yet of his time.
THE SHOSTAKOVICH 11TH DESERVES SHELF space, I suppose, simply to avoid a possible blank in the numbering -- although the symphonies of Schubert have survived a similar fate. I find the work just this side of hideous, its quotations of folk material positively lurid, its tendency to whiz past logical ending places arrogant and brainless. Its actual ending, of course, is unerringly designed for bringing down houses, and so it did: brass and the big drums up the bazooty, and everything else up to -- and, for all I know, including -- the panoply of white doves, Roman candles and the banners of the Four Freedoms. Jorge Mester and his Pasadena Symphony loom large among our most capable noisemakers; I came away on Saturday night with eardrums tingling, if somewhat bent.
That was not, however, the week's only Shostakovich. Two days before, we had the Ninth, infinitely cuter at less than half the length. Nobody has yet fully explained -- and nobody needs to -- the rationale of the work, with its sweet skitterings surrounding the fragile eloquence of its two slow movements, a curious follow-up to the blunderbuss-size ("large bore," says Webster's) Seventh and Eighth. Guest conductor Yakov Kreizberg -- an impressive young guy with a clean, sharply defined podium manner that is also great fun to watch -- shaped a nicely balanced performance of this work, and also of a brief, beautiful Cantabile for strings by Latvia's Péteris Vasks, an interesting recent arrival on the scene and worth further investigation. (The Kronos Quartet has recorded some of his music.)
Better than any of the above, however, was that program's opening work, the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the hands of Hilary Hahn: a performance so wise, so beautifully proportioned, so immaculately delivered that I had to rethink all the sad thoughts I once entertained about this work (the blandness, the stretched-out slow movement, the trivial tunes in the finale). At her last season's Philharmonic appearance, Hahn had also obliged me to rethink and upgrade my take on the Brahms Concerto, a work I have been known to deplore even more vehemently than the Beethoven. If it's possible to repeat a revelation, that's what this performance achieved. She's a mere 20, this handsome, cool, wonderfully communicative musician who can explain with a stroke of her bow, better than all the tomes about music that you and I can read or write, the matchless joy of going to concerts.
Do I gush? Find out for yourself on Wednesday, April 5: Hilary Hahn with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at UCLA's Royce Hall, with concertos by Mozart and Edgar Meyer. Top ticket $100 and, I'll bet you, worth every cent.
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