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Not With a Whimper, but a Bang

Who would have believed it? On February 29, 1988, England’s Arditti Quartet played its usual killer new-music program in its first-ever Los Angeles concert, and lured a gathering of some 20 people to LACMA‘s Bing Theater. Last week the Arditti’s program, even more challenging if anything, filled LACMA‘s plaza with something closer to 300 hopeful ticket buyers, swamping the box-office staff and forcing a half-hour delay in starting the concert. Tell me, therefore, about no audiences for challenging cultural fare.

The concert itself was extraordinary, most of all in the 35 minutes of the mystical near silences of Luigi Nono’s Fragmenti Stille that seemed to transfigure the very air in the hall. The double-bass wizard Stefano Scodanibbio -- who had drawn a substantial crowd with his solo recital at LACMA the week before -- joined the Ardittis in the final work, Julio Estrada‘s bouncy mix of sophisticated and aboriginal with an unpronounceable name. Then we all jammed into the Bing’s lobby for wine and wonderment at hardcore music‘s ongoing power to pull in a crowd, even on a Monday of a holiday weekend.

My ticket box is now empty, which is one way of determining that the ”season“ is nearly over. (Not quite over, however; there remain Ojai and Tosca -- an unlikely mix -- to report on next week, and not-to-be-missed opera in Long Beach a week later.) The merry month of May this year has been phenomenal: not the usual subsidence of activity, but a pileup of attractions that left us overworked journalists with agonizing choices between competing events on several nights. How could it happen, for example, that world-class tributes to two major, if unalike, American innovators -- David Tudor, Harry Partch -- could nudge one another merely a week apart? That two of the world’s most treasurable pianists should turn up at the Philharmonic in the same month -- Stephen Kovacevich at the start, Mitsuko Uchida at the end?

Uchida played the first and least-known of Bartok‘s three concertos, an early and formative work full of flexing of muscles if not the richness of the later composer. Never mind; Uchida wrapped into her music making -- Bartok or even just C-major scales -- becomes an emanation, a magnetic presence; the give and take with Salonen added to the magic. The program went on to murkier matters, a suite from Hans Werner Henze’s Undine, leaving questions as to who dragged this sorry item -- egregiously lacking in the snap and sizzle of the composer‘s better works -- onto a program otherwise so rewarding. There were further rewards in Ravel’s well-worn Daphnis et Chloe, nicely set forth under Salonen and gorgeously delivered by the orchestra.

There was another Philharmonic program after this -- the worst by far of the Rach concertos (No. 4), the shrill awfulness of Scriabin aflame, and some pop Rimsky. If you had heard that Daphnis, however, you‘d understand why I was happy to let the season end right there.

It was, all told, a superior musical season, particularly ennobled by the sense of nostalgia, as if the area’s musical presenters had come to a realization that this state and this nation possessed a history that was now ripe for recognition. The Aaron Copland centennial was nicely attended to, with a chamber-music program at LACMA from New York‘s Copland House, and, better yet, with an imaginative venture into orchestral and film music by the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa. At LACMA there was also an excellent series of ”made in California“ programs, celebrating the emigres that fed off the movie industry down here, and the electronic experimenters of San Francisco’s Tape Music Center: a better representation, in fact, of the vitality and variety of California at midcentury than the companion visual exhibition elsewhere in the museum. Attention was finally paid to one living legend, Lou Harrison, with major works at Philharmonic, LACMA and Green Umbrella events. I guess you could also call the Philharmonic‘s John Adams program a ”nostalgia“ event, with a revival of an hour’s worth -- not nearly enough -- of his breakthrough stage masterpiece, now 14 years old, Nixon in China.

That work, at least, still teemed with vital juices. Not so the season‘s most touted premiere, the Fifth Symphony of Philip Glass, which made it to Orange County on wings of critical ecstasy and reports of Salzburg audiences virtually on their knees -- a portentous tosh of protracted empty gesture, above all dull to the point of wrenching cruelty. A far more hopeful sign of music’s ongoing power to reach and uplift, if on a far more modest scale, was Opera Pacific‘s end-of-season importation (from the Houston Opera) of the enchanting, intimate opera that Mark Adamo fashioned from the evergreen novel Little Women.

These things I can still remember at season’s end: spellbinding Wagner from Placido Domingo and Valery Gergiev, not so much on purely musical grounds as for the promise it embodied of the L.A. Opera‘s musical future; that company’s spectacular stagings of Britten‘s Peter Grimes and Handel’s Giulio Cesare, both productions brought in from somewhere else but serving to extend operatic horizons here at home; the voice of Elizabeth Futral and the dazzling thrust of Bejun Mehta in the Handel opera; the radiance of Ian Bostridge‘s immensely likable, intelligent singing in an art-song program in Costa Mesa; Britten’s War Requiem at the Music Center; and -- even better -- Vaughan Williams‘ On Wenlock Edge, a work I had never expected to like, at the Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society.

More pianists: the spectacular Marino Formenti, brought back to LACMA for three killer new-music adventures; Murray Perahia, conducting and performing Bach and Mozart, with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, at Cerritos; Andras Schiff, conducting and performing Bach and Beethoven, with the Philharmonic; two spectacular, virtuosic newcomers onto the fingerbustin‘ scene: Arcadi Volodos at the Music Center, Lang Lang (all of 18) at Schoenberg Hall.

And yet . . . the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra dropped its last two programs; in San Francisco, the Women’s Philharmonic has canceled its next season. Beyond all the brightness, the clouds gather.


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