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Ludwig the Eternal

The Philharmonic‘s admirable chamber-music series has moved to a new home, the recently completed Ahmanson Hall at the Skirball Center, across the freeway from the former site at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium. Neither is a satisfactory venue for chamber music. Both are too wide, undermining any sense of intimacy with the music. Ahmanson, furthermore, is uncomfortable in the extreme; the spaces between rows are hostile to knees, and threading one‘s way though them is downright precarious -- especially since chamber-music aficionados tend to be of a certain age.

Nevertheless, the opening concert two weeks ago had its delights. The two big chamber works of Osvaldo Golijov, both tinged by the Yiddish side of the composer’s multifaceted background, drew the major interest and constituted such a long first half (especially after a helter-skelter series of introductory remarks) that many in the crowd left at intermission. They missed a short conceit by Heitor Villa-Lobos -- a garrulous little Bachianas Brasileiras for flute and bassoon. Even more to the point, they missed a chance to revisit a work that everybody claims to know but probably hasn‘t paid attention to in years, the F-major String Quartet of Beethoven, the first of the Opus 18 series that really tied down its composer’s conquest of the musical world.

What a work! It comes on with a whiplash, a fragment of a tune that will rattle 104 times in this first movement, play off against itself in crushing dissonance, break loose and chase itself into cadences in the wrong key. Then comes an even more profound miracle, a slow movement that takes shape as an elegy of intense poignance lit as by a sliver of moonlight through clouds, and then sends those clouds, ever darkening, like ghosts across the landscape. Beethoven claimed the Tomb Scene from Romeo and Juliet as his inspiration. Another slow movement from these early years -- the Largo from the Piano Sonata, Opus 10 No. 3 -- pours forth the same harrowing beauty. These two movements -- both in the same key, D minor -- announce the arrival of a master of bone-chilling musical expression such as the world had not yet encountered. People often dismiss everything in Beethoven up to the “Eroica,” say, as derivative stuff learned at Haydn‘s knee; this work, however, clearly lets you know that it’s later than you think.

We heard Golijov‘s Yiddishbuk at Ojai last summer, in an edgier, more profound reading by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano; the Philharmonic quartet, led by violinist Mischa Lefkowitz, gave the music a more solemn sense that also worked. This is strange, powerful music; its soul lies in a set of short poems and notations by Franz Kafka inspired by his readings of Hebrew lamentations. From that source, Golijov has worked in more contemporary references, from verses by children in Nazi internment to a personal lament for Leonard Bernstein. The music is deep and dark; it cries out, and it also cries out for rehearing.

The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind is better known; the Kronos has recorded it (on Nonesuch) and plays it often. It too is deep and dark, but is so mostly to serve as ground zero for a high-flying solo clarinet that floats over the somber scene like a Chagall ghost. The ecstatic, sometimes manic music of klezmer is a major source here, not the toe-tappers of Fiddler on the Roof, more the wrenching chants that sing of six millennia of Jewish persecution and redemption. Michele Zukovsky’s clarinets -- from soprano to bass -- caught the down-and-dirty outcry, verging at times on outright hysteria; the Philharmonic string players, with Mark Kashper leading, followed ecstatically.

At the Music Center the previous weekend, the Philharmonic‘s Miguel Harth-Bedoya began his stint leading Golijov’s Last Round, wonderful, biting music from another side of its composer‘s multinational background. Its two movements deal with two kinds of tango and, thus, deal with the exhilaration of the young Golijov under the spell of Astor Piazzolla’s playing in Buenos Aires. Two string ensembles play at opposite sides of the stage; at the start, the first-desk players play standing up, lunging and kicking into their music and raising goose bumps on their hearers as well. Gradually the music subsides into the politer, social kind of tango. This is large-scale music; it needs a better place on orchestral programs than merely as a 14-minute curtain raiser. I told Golijov it needs a third movement; he promised to think about it.

Harth-Bedoya grows, in talent and in value to the local orchestra. Surrounding Alicia De Larrocha‘s rather tired ramble through Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, he drew splendid, glinting colors from the orchestra. For his musical strengths as well as his obvious value to the Philharmonic‘s community, he should be locked behind bars and required to linger among us. Instead, the world bids for his services -- the Fort Worth Symphony, most recently. If they ever get around to legalizing cloning, he’ll be a prime candidate.

Trash comes in many sizes, many grades. At the Philharmonic last week, the high-grade trash littered the drab, murky measures of the Brahms First Symphony; the low-grade trash lay amid the modest charms of the Wieniawski D-minor Violin Concerto. By certain public measurements, the former is generally reckoned as the greater work. By my private measurements, the Wieniawski was infinitely more agreeable. One of its moments, the bridge over which the solo clarinet (Zukovsky again) transports us from the first to the second movement, is lovelier by far than any moment in the excruciating 45 minutes of pompous oratory by which Brahms secured his foothold in the world of the romantic symphony.

Emmanuel Krivine conducted an honorable, spirited rendition; the Philharmonic‘s own Alexander Treger tossed off the concerto as the airy kitsch it truly is. Krivine, a frequent visitor, has been saddled with the two least-adventurous programs of the entire Philharmonic season, last week and this; he has been allotted more substantial fare even in his Hollywood Bowl appearances in the past. He deserves as much.


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