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The Right Stuff

While maintaining his official residence in the frozen wastes of Cornell University, Steven Stucky remains one of the major shaping forces in our local new-music scene. He served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic‘s composer-in-residence starting in 1988; four years later he became the orchestra’s new-music adviser. He has composed commissioned works for this orchestra and several others. Alongside Esa-Pekka Salonen he has planned, programmed and produced the “Green Umbrella” concerts, whose continued popularity most other orchestras might well envy; he emcees the pre-concert discussions with the visiting composers, and does yeoman work in keeping those talks sane and informative. His essays in the program books on the content of specific concerts, blended into more general thoughts on what it‘s like to play a part in the endangered world of the contemporary arts, need to be gathered into a book.

Stucky turned 50 on November 7, and received the deserved tribute from the Philharmonic: American Muse, a commissioned new work for baritone and orchestra, and a “Green Umbrella” program that included two works by Stucky and three others by composers close to his heart -- his teacher, the late Witold Lutoslawski; a current student at Cornell, Joseph Phibbs; and one of the last scores by the late Jacob Druckman, a close friend and fellow prime mover.

There was a time when I found myself trapped in the mental set whereby the term “conservative,” in reference to a composer’s chosen musical style, was tantamount to the Mark of Cain. My duty, or so I once saw it, was to preach the gospel of liberation whereby the only right moves were steps into the unknown, and the greatest of sins would be to repeat what you or someone else had done once before -- even if as recently as last week. I have come to realize -- and Stucky‘s music was an important aid toward that awareness -- that a composer’s chosen language is far less important than what that language is made to express. I like to invoke the criterion I found in Virgil Thomson‘s essay on judging a new work: “Is this merely a piece of clockwork, or does it also tell time?”

Stucky’s American Muse is, by accepted judgmental standards, a conservative work. He takes four American poems -- by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons and, inevitably, Walt Whitman -- each of them a precious small scene painted in elegant words, and transfigures those paintings up one level into suave, gracefully persuasive lyric lines for a singer (Sanford Sylvan) with a special gift for turning the English language into spun gold. Never merely a supporting accompaniment, Stucky‘s orchestra becomes a participant, a panorama of color onto which the words may dance. One trick might strike you as obvious: In the setting of Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” each of America‘s singers gets a distinctive instrument to sing along with. Any five composers might have come up with this trick; it is Stucky’s gift to carry it off with fresh surprise and delight at every twist. Never mind about “conservative” or “liberal,” “left” or “right”; this is music that tells time.

It had better be made clear right off that the King Arthur that brought Orange County‘s “Eclectic Orange” to a triumphant close last week has nothing to do with Lancelot, Guinevere or the Knights of the Round Table. John Dryden (1631--1700) served as poet laureate at a time when Britons needed reaffirmation of their national heritage after the turmoil years of the plague, Cromwell and the Restoration. His Arthur wanders through a world of staggering beauty, gorgeously reflected in Henry Purcell’s music. At the end the clouds part, the British shore is revealed, and Venus proclaims the work‘s best-known aria, “Fairest isle, of all isles excelling.” Obviously, Dryden earned his royal salary.

Purcell’s incidental scores for several of Dryden‘s plays are the only reason to attend to such jingoistic foofaraw; two years ago the Long Beach Opera dressed the PurcellDryden Indian Queen in mariachi drag, and that was all right. In the rickety old auditorium of Santa Ana High School, William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, in their first-ever Southern California visit, did something different with King Arthur, but also exactly right, dispensing with most of Dryden‘s verbiage, substituting a paraphrase narration by Jeremy Sams, and offering the two hours of Purcell’s rich and fancy-laden music more or less intact but without scenery or costumes. A nine-member vocal ensemble, informally dressed, shared the dozens of roles, bolstered by a 16-member instrumental ensemble led from the harpsichord by Christie. Oh Lordy, it was beautiful; you had to be there.

Every operatic soprano makes her own kind of peace with the music of Giuseppe Verdi. Far rarer and more precious, however, is the singer with the innate, essential Verdi in her voice: the throb, the marvelous iridescence as the simplest, purest melodic line whose accents of heartbreak transfigure the stage and the audience as well. There was Licia Albanese in her prime, Leontyne Price, Maria Callas . . . who else? As Elizabeth Futral sang Violetta‘s spare, devastating lines of surrender and resignation in La Traviata’s sublime Act 2 duet two weeks ago with Opera Pacific at Orange County‘s Performing Arts Center, some tingling in my neck hairs told me that another singer had come to join those ranks.

Elizabeth Futral: In less than a decade the young American soprano’s career has ranged far and wide. Last season she was the Stella in Andre Previn‘s A Streetcar Named Desire at its San Francisco premiere, a role of high drama but musical impoverishment. This was her first Violetta, but she fulfilled the opera as though she’d lived in it all her life. Opera Pacific‘s Costa Mesa audiences are only slowly overcoming the Orange County image of cultural reluctance, but the crowd this time knew to stand and cheer.

On a handsome production borrowed from the San Francisco Opera, Linda Brovsky created a lively and genuinely provocative staging, from the crossed lines of social hostility among guests in the opening party scene to the chill grayness of the final scene. David Miller, the handsome, believable Alfredo, sang with a young-sounding voice if not yet fully supported; Louis Otey was the elder Germont, hearty of voice and sympathetic of manner. Best of all, the performance fairly glowed under the baton of John Mauceri, whose shaping of the opening prelude, even with an undernourished pit orchestra, gave notice of a careful, loving exposition of Verdi’s wondrous score. Traditional cuts -- the second-act cabalettas for Alfredo and Germont -- were opened, at least one of two stanzas each; the first-act backstage music was played backstage, as is proper but doesn‘t always happen.

As the Los Angeles Opera faces its iffy future under incoming leadership, 50 miles down the interstate there are signs of some healthy competition from the reborn Opera Pacific. So far, at least, so good.