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Metamorphoses

It will be interesting to see whether the efforts of our major cultural managements will succeed in turning Arnold Schoenberg into a media hero, as they did Igor Stravinsky last season. Schoenberg himself never made it, and the account of his attempting to divert the direction of Hollywood studio music is an amusing small episode in the Los Angeles phase of his career. The Philharmonic’s observance of its “Schoenberg Prism,” honoring the 50th anniversary of his death, began early this month, with Emanuel Ax as soloist in the 1942 Piano Concerto.

Before the concert, Schoenberg‘s two sons Lawrence and Ronald, both distinguished local citizens, chatted with KUSC’s Alan Chapman about Arnold as dad and as reg‘lar feller, including reminiscences of after-dinner walks around the block and pop music on the Victrola. Before the Concerto, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Manny Ax discussed the work itself, how painless -- downright Brahmsian -- a piece it could be if you controlled your fears. “I often sing its tunes in the shower,” Salonen confessed.

During a Q&A after the concert with Ax and Philharmonic honcha Deborah Borda, Salonen further gloated about the rightness of combining Schoenberg and Beethoven on this program, leaving unaddressed whether the upcoming Haydn-Mozart-Schoenberg and Brahms-Schoenberg programs would also qualify as marriages made in heaven. The Stravinsky concerts of February and March had been nicely preceded by video clips with the old boy himself at his most ingratiating. This time there was a scratchy, close-to-unlistenable audio of Schoenberg molding an abstruse tangle of metaphors into a speech he had planned for some kind of award.

Why bother? The Piano Concerto is a great work on its own, and Ax and Salonen gave it a beautifully shaded, spirited performance that earned a proper round of cheers. But it is a secretive work, as is most of Schoenberg’s late music, and it‘s pointless to pretend that reassurances that it won’t hurt a bit are going to elevate it onto the charts. Concertos by Bartok and Berg reach out and seem to be about something beyond their music; Schoenberg‘s is, brilliantly and disturbingly, about itself. (The Philharmonic’s Schoenberg celebration skimps on the late works, by the way. The Violin Concerto, originally on for next week, has been dropped, and the Opus 31 Variations, his orchestral masterpiece, bypassed altogether.)

I had heard strong and intelligent talk from Salonen a few days before the concert, in the first of a series of celebrity get-togethers at the Santa Monica Museum of Art sponsored by Sony and the Crossroads School. More talk on this brainpower level, perhaps with musical examples, would have actually guided the audience through the thickets of the Piano Concerto. Instead, the plan seemed to be to double-talk the rare experience of hearing the work played so well down to the level of easy listening. Two days before, at the season-opening gala concert, Salonen and the Philharmonic had inflicted some of the same treatment on music by Duke Ellington -- this time not playing it at all well, adding the haze of a full symphonic background to works that, of all the wonderful music in the world, needed it the least. Schoenberg‘s music had been falsified in word; Ellington’s in deed.

The Master Chorale has a new leader and, thus, a new lease on life. He is Grant Gershon, familiar from earlier days as one of the Philharmonic‘s assistant conductors and a total charmer leading the orchestra’s kiddie concerts. His opening program -- Thomas Tallis‘ famous 40-part motet Spem in alium, Bruckner’s Te Deum and Philip Glass‘ Itaipu -- was in itself a statement: three big works, no family-oriented fluff. The Tallis, with parts of the chorus spread through the hall answering a massed ensemble onstage, made the further statement that already, in his brief time on the new job, Gershon has found a richness of tone and a strength of phrasing that could launch the Chorale onto a new tier of musical importance. That performance level prevailed throughout the most rewarding evening, even as the level of musical quality did not. “Chug-chug,” went the Glass; “Bye-bye,” went your scribe.

The third run of Orange County’s “Eclectic Orange” began with a celebration of scope: delectable baroque opera followed mere hours later by gut-racking piano music of our own time and beyond. I have run into reservations and objections about the Mark Morris production of Rameau‘s Platee on opening night; I have none. The Prologue set in a contemporary barroom was, I’ll admit, disconcerting, but prologues to baroque operas are often set in venues different from those of the opera itself. For all his reputation as a free hand on the classic stage, Morris has stuck surprisingly close to the outlines of Rameau‘s bizarre, sometimes even cruel, danced comedy; the hot licks he allows his large and skillful cast arise nearly always from the ancient plotting of the surprisingly vicious satirical original.

The Isaac Mizrahi costumes struck a mingled note of lunacy and rococo splendor; James Ingalls’ lighting seemed to bury the whole action in a jeweled overlay. What was even more glorious was the chance to hear this kind of music, the elegant and tres French rhythms of Rameau‘s prosody, so gorgeously handled by the extraordinary singing ensemble, and the exquisite, airborne realizations of the musical ornamentations by the cast and by Nicholas McGegan’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Now we‘ve restored Handel’s operas to their proper place; it‘s time for Rameau.

Marino Formenti’s recital was set in Segerstrom Hall‘s small Founders Hall, which may be the best piano room in all of Southern California. Works by Helmut Lachenmann (tone clusters atop tone clusters) and John Adams (the spellbinding Phrygian Gates, by now classic) began it; once again, as at Formenti’s local debut (at LACMA two years ago), the killer attraction was Jean Barraque‘s Sonata. It came in this time at just under 23 minutes -- as compared to 46:23 for the estimable Herbert Henck performance on ECM (which Formenti, in a post-concert Q&A, confessed to not liking). An aura of suspicion surrounds the work, and has since Andre Hodeir’s ecstatic exegesis in his long-out-of-print Since Debussy. Now I find myself lingering at Hodeir‘s doorstep; the Sonata is, I come to realize, a work like nothing else in the galaxy: a fusillade in which every shot moves in its own orbit. Formenti’s first performance left me awestruck by the playing; this time the music itself held us all in its grip -- all 200 or so of us in a room rendered magical. A single encore, the slow movement from Mozart‘s K. 332, was like a swallow of the best wine you’ve ever tasted.


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