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Martha Argerich: Maximum Force

Worth the Wait

Martha Argerich is a force of nature, pure and undiminished. Perhaps it’s true that she cancels out of many of her engagements; she has been ill a lot in recent years. But when she does appear, in the condition she was in last Thursday night at Disney Hall — boy oh boy, does she perform! She drove through the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto on all eight cylinders, leaving nothing by the roadside and turning that near masterpiece into a show of maximum strength and delight. I never knew the work, from Prokofiev’s flamboyant years in America, was that good, and I’ll never know again, unless I hear the EMI disc, which is also by Argerich and conducted by Charles Dutoit, as it was last week.

This was, incidentally, the next-to-last event in the Philharmonic’s Festival of Youth Orchestras, in which some of our local bands stood cheek by jowl, so to speak, with visitors from Venezuela and Finland — an unfair comparison, actually, since both those countries are miles ahead of ours in developing this kind of ensemble. They were here, if anything, to tell us to get a move on in this crucial area. There is already some good news on this front, however. The Philharmonic has sent advisers out to work as mentors for a three-year stint with eight local “partner” youth orchestras. Four of those local orchestras, furthermore, rang down the curtain on the current festival with a free concert at Disney Hall. This is the next step after symposiums, and it’s how things really have to start.

Thursday’s concert presented the UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland) Verbier (Switzerland’s festival in the town of that name) Orchestra, which was founded in 2000 by, among others, James Levine. (You knew immediately that some kind of bank or corporation was behind this, from the number of gents in suits, the number of areas in Disney roped off for private receptions, and the number of people applauding between movements.) Dutoit, Argerich’s former husband, was the congenial conductor for her sublime performance of the Prokofiev, for the Berlioz “Fantastic” Symphony and, as an encore, for Chabrier’s sure-fire España Rapsodie. Argerich on her own contributed one of those marvelous Scarlatti sonatas (in D minor) that are really takeoffs on a strummed guitar, and in which I swear she took every repeat twice (hurrah!). Then she played two parts of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, and we all held our breath that she’d play the whole set — but no. I don’t know anyone who plays Schumann better than Argerich.

Many people, however, conduct Berlioz better than Charles Dutoit. Many orchestras perform the “Fantastique” with greater suavity of tone. Dutoit’s reading of the “Fantastique” was speedy and loud, and Berlioz’s shepherds on their hilltops merely sounded like two oboists counting time, and his severed head failed to bounce.

Messianic Zeal

I missed the first of this season’s Jacaranda concerts through sheer stupidity — attending instead the Philip Glass opera in San Francisco. Last weekend’s concert held enough satisfaction for two events. The series’ connoisseur programmers, Patrick Scott and Mark Alan Hilt, are engaged in a multiyear celebration around the 100th birthday (1908) of Olivier Messiaen in the broadest sense. This time, the program was all-Debussy, music by the composer furthest out of the ordinary world at his time and, therefore, closest in spirit to Messiaen’s. Later programs in 2007-08 will venture as far afield in search of Messaien influencers as Bach and Liszt, not to mention Tchaikovsky, Xenakis and Stockhausen.

The Debussy program included familiar treasures — the shimmering wonderment of the G-minor String Quartet, one of the earliest works, and the Violin Sonata, the very last — and some music less well-known. Outstanding among the latter were two sets of Songs of Bilitis, songs to poetry of Pierre Louÿs, lines to be sung with rapture, and wonderment, mostly, at the miracle of the female body — one set for singer and piano, another for reciter with flutes, harps and celesta rolling forth sounds one might expect to hear among heaven’s angels.

Over the years, Jacaranda has gathered a steady performers’ group with its own nicely interlocking style. Chief among them is the Denali Quartet, founded by cellist Timothy Loo with violinists Sarah Thornblade and Joel Pargman and violist Alma Lisa Fernandez: a spirited ensemble that has braved the rigors of Ben Johnston’s just-intonation harmonies and the craggy rhythms of the totality of Revueltas in one sitting. Splendid pianists have come through the ranks, including ophthalmologist-turned-virtuoso Scott Dunn and Gloria, Mark and Vicki from the PianoSpheres roster.

It’s not too soon to talk about a “Jacaranda style.” It has to do with taste: the personal values of a couple of highly educated music lovers, which happen to interlock with a considerable audience who find common cause, don’t applaud between movements and welcome a reasonable alternative to the I-10 on a Saturday night.