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Good, Bad, Beautiful, Ugly, Etc.

There was chamber music in town last week, the wrong pieces beautifully played. On Wednesday, three delightfully earnest and talented young musicians from overseas -- the violinist Christian Tetzlaff, his younger sister the cellist Tanja, and the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes -- played an evening‘s worth of lesser Schumann. On Friday, the estimable Emanuel Ax joined Philharmonic members in “other” Mendelssohn and Dvorak: not the former’s lustrous, familiar D-minor Trio but the inferior, lumpier C-minor; not the latter‘s radiant Piano Quintet -- chamber music at its most feelgood -- but his E-flat Piano Quartet, its poorer imitation. Even the venues were wrong. The soft, melancholic strains of Schumann’s last two piano trios became faint and distant voices on Wednesday in the vast space of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; the crowd was fair-sized, but its collective heart would have been better warmed in the intimate space of the Zipper Concert Hall down the street. At Zipper on Friday, Manny Ax played with the piano lid fully open, seriously outshouting the brave voices of the participating string players: a grand noise on its own, perhaps, but only distantly related to chamber music -- performances, in other words, on a Pavilion-size scale.

What makes a piece of music “better” or “lesser,” at least in this one pair of ears that happens to be attached to a word processor? One easy criterion: “Better” works tend to get even better on repeated hearings. I could never conceive a time when I would not welcome a hearing of the one truly unchallengeable work in Schumann‘s considerable chamber-music legacy, the E-flat Piano Quintet. It dates from 1842, a happy time in the Schumann household. It is, in fact, one of Schumann’s strongest works in any medium. Its opening, the dialogues between the jagged angular and the suavely lyrical, grabs your attention and holds it. The music plays wonderful tricks; themes once heard keep popping up unexpectedly later on. The momentum is breathtaking; that element, above all, is peculiarly lacking in the later works. No matter that Schumann derived the template for the Quintet from Schubert‘s equally great E-flat Trio; the two works, side by side on a program, would not be a redundancy.

But I hear little of this strength in any of the three piano trios -- the last two so eloquently pleaded by Tetzlaff and his colleagues, or the more familiar No. 1. Schumann’s hand is immediately recognizable not in any detectable originality in the music, but from the constant reminders of his well-known earlier works, including a few of the songs -- a harmony here, a turn of phrase there, a patchwork of old friends. You have to wonder what in this music could attract such bright and valuable young players, who rank among the strongest portents of a splendid future for the great repertory of the past -- Christian Tetzlaff for his Bach, Andsnes for a Beethoven Fourth Concerto here a couple of years ago that still resounds. Ending their concert, there was one encore, a single movement from Beethoven‘s adolescence. In five minutes it delivered a prophecy of mastery still to come, as the hour of Schumann had delivered a regretful nostalgia for mastery fast fading.

George Antheil’s Sonata Sauvage, which Marino Formenti included on the last of his four instantly legendary piano recitals at the County Museum, inspired another kind of nostalgia: a search in vain for memories of ever hearing a worse piece of music by anyone, anywhere. It conjures a sad picture: its 22-year-old composer, incomparably fair of face, petted and curried and journeying through between-wars European salon society as that new exotic toy, an American composer. His amateurish but startling clatter-and-bang doesn‘t mask the music’s appalling lack of content; enough that it fulfills the saloniste view of America. He is the Noble Savage redux, and a “Savage Sonata” serves as his calling card. Ezra Pound even devoted an entire book to Antheil‘s pre-eminence among composers of the day: pound-foolishness, if ever there was.

This final program, all-American, included far better music, of course. Charles Ives’ Three-Page Sonata was well worth reviving, with its first movement full of the same uncoiling, chromatic energy that fills the “Emerson” segment of the Concord Sonata with amazement. (The piece is not trivial, despite its title; the “pages,” the program note explained, are actually large manuscripts.) Framing the extraordinary evening were works of John Cage and Morton Feldman, music of notes and silences, of room exactly measured but with space into which you and I must enter. Without actually counting, I would guess that there are more notes in any 10 seconds of Antheil‘s infantile savagery than in the 20 minutes of Feldman’s Piano, and I have no difficulty deciding which package of notes constitutes music, and which lunatic noise.

I have had reason more than once to extol the work of the Minnesota-based American Composers Forum, notably for its Innova discs that honor a broad range of experimental music and for its particular attention -- on disc, video and an impressive published documentary volume -- to the music of Harry Partch. Beyond this, the ACF fulfills the “forum” aspect by helping composers in as many of their needs as limited funding can allow. There are ACF chapters in several cities, and the Los Angeles branch is officially launched next week, run by Heidi Lesemann, who shepherded the long-departed Arnold Schoenberg Institute during its happier days at USC. (Reach them at lacomposersforum@aol.com.) One crucial need, it has long seemed to me, is a way of circulating information; the last thing most new-music presenters (including, most emphatically, the County Museum) can afford is any kind of advertising budget. That‘s why there were fewer than 50 people at Formenti’s first concert here, and more only after word of mouth got around. To address this, the ACF plans to issue New Music L.A., a monthly calendar of new-music events covering the area from Orange to Santa Barbara counties. The first issue (MayJune) should be available at classical counters at Tower and Virgin next week. Even in this “doldrums” part of the music season, you‘ll be amazed at how much is going on.


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