Sound and Substance
Battle of the Brands
At Disney Hall, the conductorless chamber orchestra known as Orpheus performed its brand of Mozart against that of the pianist Emanuel Ax; they did not match. Orpheus, which is popular for the same reasons that attract crowds to blind tenors and one-armed acrobats, is proficient at producing a well-sculpted wall of sound that is little different whether the program calls for Mozart or Copland. “Manny” Ax, on the other hand, is a marvelously sensitive pianist with a deep understanding of the expressive differences between Mozart’s intimate, subtle G-major Concerto (K. 453) and the grand celebrations that fill the C-major work (K. 503) of only two years later. The pianist knew, in other words — as whatever unnamed force that guides the destiny of the orchestra does not — how and why an all-Mozart program is so uniquely stirring a musical experience.
András Schiff also knows, and his solo all-Mozart program at Disney five days later had the planning of a profoundly dedicated musician: small works and large, including less-known pieces that invariably evoke incredulity at their harmonic daring. One small accident marred the event: a dropped cane that went rattling down a long flight of wooden Disney stairs, midway in the amazingly rich B-minor Adagio, but the pianist soon recovered, and so did we. That Adagio, and the A-minor Rondo later in the program, are the pieces that you play to convince yourself of the vast chasm between finger-friendly and deeply profound in the music of this composer whom we will never fully know. I can play those notes, and so can you; we need an András Schiff, or an Emanuel Ax (or a Jeffrey Kahane), to turn them into music.
From an incredibly busy couple of weeks at Disney Hall, you don’t need my words to honor Yo-Yo Ma’s smooth-as-silk (as in “Road”) participation with Ax in a Beethoven program (in which the piano writing was conceived to dominate the cello line anyway) or the no-brain diversion, complete with facial isometrics, concocted by superstar violinist Joshua Bell in the name of the Brahms Violin Concerto this past weekend. Sheer delight on that last program, however (although you’d never know from the limping prose of the stand-in guy at the Times), was the chance to hear the Sixth Symphony of Schubert in the hands of a conductor — Britain’s Jonathan Nott — who really knows and values that small corner of the repertory.
Here is Schubert at 20, feverishly starting new works and tossing them soon after. His wastebasket includes a fabulously beautiful beginning of a piano sonata in F sharp minor (which András Schiff once played on a TV documentary). His completed works include a four-hand piano sonata and a set of variations that everybody should play. This C-major Symphony surpasses all. Its scoring for winds anticipates Mendelssohn; its jog-trotting finale (which Jonathan Nott took at exactly the right “Viennese” pace) cannot be heard without happy smiles.
A Movable Feast
Santa Monica’s Jacaranda Concerts, displaced while their church is being remodeled, zoomed into life somewhere else last weekend, and how! The first notes of Aaron Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano sounded through the vastness of Santa Monica High’s Barnum Hall shortly after 4 p.m. last Saturday; the final fade-out of Terry Riley’s In C drew the die-hards’ cheers just before midnight. The intervening eight hours had been filled with déjà vu mostly marvelous, a “Pan-American Music Marathon” of some of the best music, in the best performances, that the founders of this treasurable series have brought forth — to an ever-growing, supportive audience — in their past four years.
Like the splendid catered dinner from the Border Grill, the program was a nice mix of flavors and aromas, best exemplified by the inclusion of one of Osvaldo Golijov’s omnium-gatherum pieces to match his own heritage. Eduardo Delgado hammered out a couple of Ginastera’s piano sonatas; Gloria Cheng sailed by on the cloud known as John Adams’ Phrygian Gates; there was lots of Steve Reich but no Philip Glass — my choice too. Only one piece struck me as dull, the finale of Charles Ives’ Trio, and that was preceded by the previous movement, an authentic hoot. After a year of innumerable mistreatments delivered upon Riley’s pioneering masterpiece, it was encouraging to hear the work’s freshness endure and glisten, lovingly delivered, lovingly received.
Best of all, please note, these performers — string quartet, percussion ensemble, soloists, a whole gatherum for the Riley — were all local people. They work in studios, in local orchestras; many of them are from USC or CalArts. It’s when projects like Jacaranda succeed that they are encouraged to remain here rather than plunging into the New York maelstrom. Saturday’s program was broken into segments; the audience could come and go. Around the midpoint, when some of the best past Jacaranda performances — Joel Pargman’s of the Lou Harrison Violin Concerto, John Adams’ Shaker Loops by seven strings — were being returned to life, you got the feeling of a lot of people, in a congenial room, sharing some happy memories.
Obiter dictum: Daniel Cariaga, who left us last week at 71 — much too soon — was that rare phenomenon, a music critic and a gentleman. I met him first in 1980, at one of the early CalArts contemporary-music festivals. It would never have occurred to his boss at the Times, the ferocious Bernheimer, that this was an event demanding a paper’s chief critic. Danny, the second in command, was somewhat at sea during most of that weekend, but everybody admired his forbearance and his good humor, and the fact that he never wrote beyond what he knew. It would be a while before the Times got someone else like that, and the good news is that Danny did some teaching in his last few years. I hope those guys find jobs.