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Iannis and the Big Bang

Photo by Betty Freeman

Iannis Xenakis' Persephassa went zooming around the inner space of Zipper Hall the other night, and for the length of that journey — half an hour, give or take — it obliged me to believe that music couldn't get any better. The fresh air on Grand Avenue, and the gleam of Frank Gehry's nascent monster across the street, restored my sense of proportion, but the sound of Xenakis' 34-year-old creation remains with me 10 days later, a welcome presence.

The piece is for percussion, and was the final work on the Green Umbrella program by that bang-up ensemble from UC San Diego known as "red fish blue fish" (words from another notable San Diegan, Dr. Seuss). Riding high along pathways blazed by John Cage and Lou Harrison, among others, Steven Schick's eight-member ensemble busies itself creating, reviving and maintaining a marvelous repertory of percussion works. Music by Cage was on this program, as was Steve Reich's exhilarating Music for Mallet Instruments (which also enlists the services of a vocal trio plus electronic keyboard); it fell to Xenakis, with works fore and aft, to steal the evening. I have occasionally had trouble with Xenakis and his self-proclaimed mysticism, defined in some works weighed down in latter-day mathematics and ancient symbolism; the music last week broke through and bedazzled.

Persephassa dates from 1969, early in what became a huge legacy of works for unusually constituted instrumental groups. Six groups of assorted percussion instruments, one player to each group, were spread around the two side balconies at Zipper; the groups "answered" one another antiphonally across the hall, and at the end they created the sense of a continuous passage of sound from one player to the next, increasing in speed and complexity and, thus, tightening its hold on the listener. The acoustics at Zipper, which I have praised at "normally" constituted events, survived this test as well; the music — "a calamitous barrage of strident noises and powerful, unpredictable silences," in Schick's words — hung suspended. Initially the players struck what sounded like normal drummers' exercises; this, too, increased in complexity to match the increasing sense of movement. "Calamitous" it certainly was, also overpowering. I can still feel it as I write.

Kassandra (1987) began the program: a monodrama, with words from Aeschylus, for a singer (UCSD's remarkable Philip Larson) who must alternate between a falsetto (for the rejected Cassandra as death nears) and a bass for the commenting chorus, spurred by the insistent pounding of Schick's percussion. The two Cage works were slighter stuff, but the Inlets — for players tilting water-filled conch shells to produce an enchanting (and remarkably varied) counterpoint of gurgle — became by some distance the evening's charmer.

Across the street two days earlier, the Philharmonic busied itself with the premiere of a trombone concerto by Augusta Read Thomas, written for and played by Ralph Sauer — the latest in the series of solo works commissioned by the orchestra for its principals. There are more trombone concertos around than you'd think — even one by Rimsky-Korsakov — but this agreeable newcomer may be somewhat different, perhaps even a cut above the average. In their e-mail correspondence — which is how pieces often get composed nowadays — Sauer requested a lyrical kind of piece from Thomas, specifically one with a notable absence of that most timeworn of trombone mannerisms, the glissandos familiar from burlesque-theater bands and circuses. There are, indeed, no trombone slides in Gustie Thomas' new piece, and a rather appealing amount of melody. Some of the latter teeters on the edge of jazziness, and does so quite nicely. The piece bears the title Canticle Weaving; I'm not sure about "Canticle," but the "weaving," the way the soloist moves in and out of the ensemble, I found most attractive. The L.A. Times' Mark Swed found that the tone of the work put him in mind of the U.N.'s Kofi Annan; maybe so, but I think I heard a little Bing Crosby, too.

"I hate dead music," said the composer in her lively and informative pre-concert talk, and she should have no fears on that score from Canticle Weaving. Brahms' Double Concerto, which ended the program, is about as dead as any music I can name. Only four opus numbers separate it from the Fourth Symphony, which is sad and mellow and reminiscent of leaves in autumn, but not dead. The Double Concerto gives us strained and half-formed melodic shapes pushing their way through a dense and hostile orchestration. Writers whom I otherwise admire single out the slow movement as an example of unfettered and sublime melody; I find it clumsy beyond redemption, and there you are. To make any point the "Double" needs the affected arrogance of phrase that Heifetz brought to it on either of his recordings; the performance by the Philharmonic's Bing Wang and Ben Hong was merely careful and musical and, thus, excruciating. The program began with early Richard Strauss beer-garden, the one-movement Serenade for Winds, which, being early Strauss and composed for a Mozartian ensemble, some people mistake for youthful exuberance. In any case, Augusta Read Thomas couldn't have chosen better program mates to get her own music to kick up its heels and dance until dawn.

Hopes for a local revival of Les Troyens to help celebrate the Berlioz bicentennial are probably unrealistic in these troubled times. Meanwhile there is a superb performance, from the 2000 Salzburg Festival, produced on two DVD discs on the ArtHaus label distributed by Naxos. Sylvain Cambreling was the conductor, the late Herbert Wernicke was the designer and director, Jon Villars (not to be confused, alas, with Jon Vickers but otherwise excellent) was the Aeneas, and Deborah Polaski sang the roles of Cassandra and Dido. Wernicke's production is stark: Two walls form an angle, with open space in back that suggests the horrors of war and subsequent desolation. The best-of-all news is that the ballets, which form the dreariest aspect of any complete Troyens you've ever seen (including the one recently at the Met), have been cut. Cut. Gone.

Polaski is a strong, intense singer; Villars is not the ultimate hero, but his work is clean and intelligent. Cambreling, still too little known here (except for a week at the Hollywood Bowl — small change!), leads a finely proportioned performance with special eloquence from the winds and horns of his Orchestre de Paris. The chances of a live-action Troyens being what they are hereabouts these days, this new video is a fairer-than-fair facsimile.


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