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Local Color

Photo by Diane Alancraig

Two events on last week’s crowded calendar, with music created eons apart, came agreeably close to whatever it is that people can define as “perfection.” One was Gloria Cheng’s piano concert in Santa Monica on Saturday, especially in extended works by Olivier Messiaen and John Adams; the other came a night later at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall, with Gary Gray as soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Vastly different kinds of music these, written under vastly different circumstances, yet I find a similar urgency — call it hypnosis and you won’t go too far astray — in the strength of Mozart’s lyricism and the motive power in the unfolding of two ’prentice works from these unalike French and American figures of our own time.

We rack our own expressive resources, and have now for centuries, seeking the words to explain the shivers as the simplest Mozart tune unfolds — the slow movement of this Clarinet Concerto, for one. An arpeggio moves upward, then down, then up again but with a few extra notes to darken the harmony: That’s all there is, the same as there is nothing but water and sunlight to a rainbow. The wonder of Mozart — here, and in the galaxy of similar unimposing tunes and astonishing harmonic devices that can trouble our sleep in the remembrance (the Countess’ “Porgi, amor” in Figaro, the Wind Serenade invoked in the one sane moment in Amadeus) — is the sublime exactitude with which these exquisitely fashioned small ideas fill their space. And it is that ability to fill their space that sets the works of the classical language apart from anything else in music, no matter how eloquently (and convincingly) one might argue for the place of this or that contemporary language alongside the dead masters.

But I digress. Cheng’s concert was part of the new and charmingly chosen “Jacaranda” series at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian, with benches that make you sit upright and music that makes it worth the effort. Messiaen’s Eight Préludes, from 1929, shows us a young and ardent composer under Debussy’s spell and trying out the extreme ends of his palette, with enchanting sounds that would stay with him in later, surer works but with an earnestness that already bears his own signature. Cheng has performed and recorded a lot of Messiaen; she wears his colors well. Her command of color also ennobles her concept of Adams’ Phrygian Gates, which becomes, with her, a marvelous ebb-and-flow that transcends the “pure” minimalist patterning and assumes its important position as the ancestor of much of Adams’ later mastery. The plan of the work, the interplay of modalities and modulations as set forth in Adams’ intricate program notes, is important in itself; in every succeeding performance from Cheng — I have heard several, plus her two recordings — I become more aware of the dramatic instincts that motivate the piece and make its final moments both devastating and thrilling.

 

Cheng is one of our local heroes; as is Vicki Ray, whose Piano Spheres concert earlier this month was, as usual, full of high spirits and adventure, and who turned up again at LACMA as the spark plug at last week’s Xtet concert; as is Jeffrey Kahane. The L.A. Chamber Orchestra concert included the aforementioned Clarinet Concerto, a Bach concerto with Kahane conducting from the keyboard and a pair of Vivaldi double concertos — two cellos, two oboes — with orchestra first-desk players as soloists. Under Kahane the orchestra flourishes; the programs are lively and so is his leadership. As you might expect, he is being nibbled at by other bigtime orchestras, including, I am told, the Denver; orchestral bigamy is all the rage these days. Before the concert he lectured and demonstrated, charmingly and intelligently, on the differences between harpsichord and piano. The Vivaldi soloists included the orchestra’s first oboist Allan Vogel, who is as fine an exponent of that treacherous instrument as exists anywhere in the land today. The program also included a weak-tea bit by one David Matthews, an Introit for strings, and a final peal of trumpets composed for Gloucester Cathedral, where it might have done well to remain.

At LACMA there was another excellent Xtet program, providing further expansion to the current Shostakovich glut and the chance to revisit some early Aaron Copland too often neglected, the Sextet for Piano, Clarinet and Strings. This was Copland’s reworking, wisely undertaken, of his 1933 Short Symphony, music from which both the intrepid Serge Koussevitzky and Leopold Stokowski had backed away on the matter of rhythmic complexity (and which the no-less-intrepid MTT of SFO has recorded with the ease of a knife through butter). It’s a great piece of sassy, jazzy, in-your-face Copland, but it belongs in the hands of chamber players — the kind of handle-anything studio musicians who make up groups like Xtet, with Vicki Ray at the piano and guest clarinetist Philip O’Connor.

The concert ended in similar high style with a journey through the Shostakovich Piano Quintet of 1940 — music serene, sarcastic and dark at times but beautifully balanced. Two years before the garish Seventh Symphony — and, of course, a year before the disastrous Nazi invasion that necessitated such perversion of his artistic impulses — here is the work of a composer totally in command of his art. The comparison should be not with the overdrawn billboards of the wartime symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, but with the more self-possessed Ninth of 1945 — which, perforce, the Philharmonic also played last weekend — which immediately followed the war and which, in some ways, joins with this quintet as a pair of bookends surrounding Shostakovich’s wartime involvement. The further irony, of course, is that the quintet was well-received by Soviet higher-ups, while the Ninth Symphony, whose brash sarcasm was more readily noted than its rich fund of lyric impulse, almost landed him in Siberia.

The Shostakovich enigma remains to puzzle and delight. At the very least, his legacy embodies a repertory of intensely performable music, written down with a profound understanding of what it will sound like and how it will leap off a stage. In this, the kinship with Mahler is immediately apparent, and was especially so at last week’s Philharmonic program, where the Ninth shared the evening with Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs (about which more next week). Mozart is not far behind.

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