Songs Sad and Seasonal
There are moments in Hector Berlioz’s music when the harmonies become so clumsy, so befuddled in the sheer ugliness of their sound, that the mere progression around a simple turn of phrase starts to throb like a toothache — especially when, as with mine, the teeth are new. But then you immediately realize — or I do, anyhow — that the downright arrogance of these passages somehow makes up for these lapses of musical common sense, and that Berlioz’s harmonic peccadilloes come from his having studied music on the guitar (rather than a proper concert instrument), where he often was induced to leave out the middle notes of chords and create those empty, rude chordal tones in which the Grand Funeral and Triumphal Symphony, exhumed last week by Bramwell Tovey and the Philharmonic out of the Good Lord knows where, so agonizingly abounds. (To students in search of paradigms for the overstuffed Berlioz style at its most flamboyantly impenetrable, I recommend that last sentence.)
You will journey far through music’s realm before encountering the like of this woolly not-quite-masterwork, which the Philharmonic, along with most of us, encountered for the first time ever at these recent Bowl concerts. As augmented by a local brass contingent from Granada Hills High School and the Pacific Chorale, with the noisemaking forces bolstered by a glorious gadget (bells and other percussion, dolled up with banners and feathers and bearing the grandiose title of Jingling Johnny — or Turkish Crescent or Pavillon Chinois, depending how you shake it), the work turns out a conglomeration of march patterns, a wordless “funeral oration” for solo trombone, and a final “apothéose” of high-level carrying-on, including a choral invocation of “glory and respect to the sublime victims of the Fatherland’s fallen!!!” Apparently, they knew how to do those things pretty well back in 1840, but I’m also willing to bet that an appropriate musical setting of some recent presidential press conferences (your choice) might very well end up sounding like certain passages in Monsieur Berlioz’s Grande Symphonie.
Let me tell you about Bramwell Tovey. He’s a Brit, as you might guess, but no apparent relation to Sir Donald, the eloquent Scotsman who so influenced my own writing back when. He comes out of a Salvation Army background, which explains his larrupin’ success with the massed brass on the Berlioz half of the program, and the genuine audience-reaching charm of his introductory words to this half, which makes him an obvious candidate to replace the about-to-retire John Mauceri as the Bowl’s master-of-all-imagination. Beyond that he has a serious side, as conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony, where he has introduced quite an impressive program of new music to that chill and windswept city. He began last week’s programs (given on both Tuesday and Thursday; I heard the second) with a substantial, tightly controlled Beethoven Fifth: not at all sloppy, as I was told the Tuesday performance had been, but clearheaded and cumulative. It had a single flaw but a common one: a failure to repeat the last-movement exposition, which robs the symphony’s glorious peroration of the last full measure of grandeur.
Having lived through a time — pre-1948, let’s say — when Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was a musical entity known only to a few desiccated musicologists, I find it somewhat disconcerting, but surely delightful, to encounter the work showing up in a broad repertory, including a salsa version on the Bowl agenda next week and the ring tones of the cell phone of a friend otherwise unreached by the musical attainments of the High Baroque. I wasn’t aware of any potent shock of recognition sweeping through the John Anson Ford Amphitheater last Sunday night as our excellent local ensemble Musica Angelica explored Vivaldi’s landscape in its “normal” scoring, with all its picturesque seductions nicely underlined. None was necessary. Elizabeth Blumenstock’s solo violin contributed the most expressive singing of any musical event I happened upon during the week — operatic cast, solo trombone, whatever. The Angelica ensemble, succumbing to her example, played — well, without belaboring the matter, as angels might. Only a recalcitrant amplification system added a touch of the satanic: Was it needed at all?
For its annual summer-season opera, the Music Academy of the West has a long reputation for coming up with some whiz-bang repertory in performances of comparable quality, to reward the horror of what usually turns out a 90-mile bumper-to-bumper drive into Santa Barbara’s Fiesta Weekend. This year’s opera was Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims, and while there are valid reasons for arguing that the work isn’t much of an opera at all, those demurrers become less important once the music starts. The opera dates from 1825, and is basically a bootlicking piece to honor the coronation of France’s Charles X, with a lot of elegant people gathered on their way to the coronation, enduring foul-ups amorous and otherwise, finally deciding that none of them matters and singing to honor the new king. The best of the music — especially a splendid chorus-and-ensemble piece that made up most of Act 2 in the original — later got reused in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, a far better work. Why didn’t they do that one instead?
That Il Viaggio exists at all today is due to some masterful cobbling activity by the Rossini Foundation, based in Pesaro, the composer’s birthplace, which reassembled the score from scattered manuscripts and produced the famous performance I saw in 1984, under Claudio Abbado with an all-star cast. Brave souls, even of less than all-star quality, have kept the work in circulation since that illustrious resurrection, but the recording of that event remains to shame them all, and so it was last weekend. I heard pretty voices, a lively orchestra under Christopher Larkin, an ensemble cast deployed by director Casey Stangl (honest!) around Allen Moyer’s serviceable but bland stage set in the airless Lobero Theater. I didn’t hear a single trill in proper Rossinian style, or a long and lovely phrase delivered with a sense of line with shading and blossoming and shape. In the audience sat the great Marilyn Horne, who is the Music Academy’s Voice Program director in the tradition of the school’s founding divinities Lotte Lehmann, Martial Singher and Maurice Abravanel. I’m sure she knew how much ground had been covered in presenting this altogether pleasant evening of opera, and how much ground remained to be covered.?
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