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Picking Up the Pieces

The year ended with fitting resonance. At Westwood’s St. Paul the Apostle Church, Dana Marsh was back for a last time to lead his boys, men, soloists and Michael Eagan‘s Musica Angelica in one more superb Messiah before embarking for broader horizons; he will be missed. One soloist needs special, ecstatic mention: soprano Alice Gribbin, half-Brithalf-angel. At UCLA’s Royce Hall, Jeffrey Kahane and his L.A. Chamber Orchestra ended the Bach year with a creditable B-minor Mass. I particularly liked his idea of alternating small and large ensembles in some of the big choruses, enhancing both drama and clarity. Other fine noises filled the air at Royce a few days later, as the winners from Placido Domingo‘s Operalia returned for a gala concert to prove that wise judges still exist somewhere in the world, and that opera has nothing to fear from any immediate singer shortage.

The year began and ended with Esa-Pekka Salonen: one Green Umbrella concert of his music in January, to speed him into his sabbatical year, and another in December to reveal the fruits of his labors during that year. The two works -- the grit of the orchestral L.A. Variations and the wit of the new piano workout Dichotomie -- declare the variety of expressive manner and the versatility of our resident maestro, and, as well, of resident virtuosa Gloria Cheng, who dispatched the latter work in an awesome gloves-on gloves-off performance. In the months between those events, the steelwork went up at the Disney Hall site, substantial assurance of what we in journalism know as ”MORE TK.“

Absent Salonen, the Philharmonic’s year left fewer than usual lingering memories. A succession of Brits lingers the most vividly: the splendid Mark Elder to lead two programs, including a Verdi Requiem eloquent, noble and roof-raising; and the Ojai Festival under Simon Rattle, with rapturous new music by Thomas Ades and Mark Anthony Turnage. In October, there was Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem, memorably led by Antonio Pappano, with the extraordinary British tenor Ian Bostridge in his local debut. (By the way, I’m about halfway through Bostridge‘s doctoral thesis, Witchcraft and Its Transformations, published by Oxford. It’s not as much fun as the Harry Potter books, but no less informative.) On the other hand, Sir Roger Norrington‘s revival of Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, music praised around 1940 for its agitprop bravery, merely proclaimed the greater wisdom in according sleeping dogs a wide berth.

The Los Angeles Opera, in its changing-of-the-guard year, also fared well on Britten‘s shores, with a Billy Budd as a seaworthy ending to Peter Hemmings’ reign and a Peter Grimes among the first bright lights of the Domingo era. The long-overdue Aida, which began that era, went only partway toward ending the famine, while the recent drab revival of La Boheme underlined the fact that new managements can‘t always change things overnight. The best of opera last year lay more in the portents than the actuality: smashing news from the Domingo camp about the future (a George Lucas Ring, superpatron Alberto Vilar’s millions, the names of Kent Nagano and Valery Gergiev aglow on the conductors‘ roster, the wealth of promise among the Operalia singers). There was grand opera elsewhere as well, an Ariadne auf Naxos at Marilyn Horne’s Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, and the Long Beach Opera‘s exhumations of opera old and almost-new: Jacopo Peri’s Euridice of 1600 and Luigi Dallapiccola‘s Volo di Notte of 1940.

To the County Museum, out of Italy, came a hitherto unknown pianist named Marino Formenti, for whom four killer 20th-century programs -- including Jean Barraque’s Sonata, the Great White Shark of piano music -- held no terrors. (He returns for three more programs next month.) George Crumb, whose music for no sensible reason languishes half-forgotten nowadays, was properly honored at a Green Umbrella concert, and got to charm another large audience at one of the Philharmonic‘s valuable but now discontinued (why?) Sunday-morning Q&A-plus-pastry sessions. Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5 -- a work hailed in some quarters as the cat‘s pajamas of all apocalypses, but in others as the kind of thing that gives self-indulgence a bad name -- opened the Orange County Philharmonic’s Eclectic Orange festival. The Orange folk found better ways to affix their much-maligned county to the cultural map: Bostridge in a Schubert-Wolf program in exactly the right small space for lieder recitals; Mikel Rouse in another of his multimedia almost-operas; and, earlier in the year, a Bach program conducted by Jordi Savall, as satisfying as any entry in that composer‘s anniversary year.

Of all the movers and shakers I’ve had to deal with, Teresa (”Tracey“) Sterne was the one I found it hardest to say ”no“ to. The last time I tried (and failed) was in New York on January 31, 1986; I remember the date because it was Schubert‘s birthday. Tracey cajoled me into coming to a Schubert program at Symphony Space to hear some new singer she’d discovered. The singer was Dawn Upshaw. Fifteen years later, I can still hear every note of that concert.

Tracey died last month, after years of battle with the one enemy, Lou Gehrig‘s disease, she couldn’t outtalk. In her great years she headed -- no, actually, she invented -- Nonesuch Records, a label that gave us new music (Cage, Crumb, Babbitt, Subotnick), old music lovingly restored (American ballroom songs, ragtime, Stephen Foster), world music recorded at the site, Bach cantatas led by unknowns (the excellent Karl Ristenpart). The artwork was worth hanging on the wall; the jacket notes assumed that you‘d be listening with brains as well as hormones. While other LPs sold for $5.95, Nonesuch went for $2.98.

Every record company has someone in charge who watches sales charts and sees to it that the slow items -- chamber music, say, or Cage -- get dropped at the end of the month. A very few in the annals of recording seem to understand, and work to preserve, the artistic value of their product. Goddard Lieberson at Columbia showed the way in the ’50s; today‘s small list of survivors includes Manfred Eicher, the ”E“ of ECM; Bob Hurwitz, who still keeps the Nonesuch name flying above its corporate ownership; and brave souls at hole-in-the-wall ventures like New Albion, Mode and Bridge. Lieberson recorded new American music in the 1950s and financed that side of his catalog with Kostelanetz and show tunes; Tracey Sterne came on the scene in 1965. The two-disc Nonesuch tribute that Hurwitz put together in time for Tracey to know about it has some of her not-bad performances as a teenage pianist, and a sampling of her achievements as a record producer. Most of the latter remains in the catalog, reprocessed to CD. Her monument endures.


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