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Time Capsules

Bertrand Desprez

Five years ago I used some of this space to exult over my discovery of the French composer Pascal Dusapin at his first appearance on disc — a pseudo-operatic gloss on the Medea legend in a Harmonia Mundi release conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. I can’t claim that my words at that time have elevated Dusapin to hit-parade status, but a new work of his, Granum Sinapis, performed last week at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall (and recently released on France’s Naïve label, also distributed by Harmonia Mundi), reinforced my high regard for his music.

Granum Sinapis, as I surely don’t have to tell you, is drawn from the speculative writings — God, the soul, etc. — of Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic, 20 minutes of mystery-drenched singing for a cappella choir, much of it hovering at the brink of silence until a final whammo declaration comes over like the fires of Creation. It was composed for and sung here by the 32-member French chorus called Accentus, founded in 1991 and led by Laurence Equilbey, another of those courageous ensembles that take on the most daunting demands today’s composers can dream up. In Dusapin’s case, those demands include an intricate interplay of several levels of pianississimo and a willingness to deal with microtones, polyrhythms, the works. The results, deeply stirring, were like a revelation of a huge and complex soundscape of silence. At UCLA, the problems for the audience — largely Francophone, and considerably diminished after intermission — were compounded by the total omission in the program book of information about the evening’s composers (Schoenberg and Poulenc alongside Dusapin), the music or the sung texts. That’s no way to run a concert, especially one as challenging — and, despite the odds, rewarding — as this.

By one of those coincidences that seem to come about without any help from Above, last week was a time of music very old (the Sequentia concert at UCLA and the better half of an Eclectic Orange event in Irvine) and very new (Les Percussions de Strasbourg at LACMA, the Dusapin and the lesser half of Eclectic Orange). Founded in 1977 by the Americans Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton but based in Cologne, Sequentia ranks among the noblest and most active of the very-early-music performing groups. What I admire most about them is their willingness to apply a certain amount of contemporary imagination to the objects of their exhumations, their assumption of the license to fill in between the dots in ancient manuscripts when necessary. Their work trumpets the belief, in other words, that oldness doesn’t have to mean dullness. I’m not sure the world cries out for all eight CDs of their “complete” perusal of the music of Hildegard von Bingen (with a ninth disc on the way), but their performance zeal almost makes me believe I can tell one of her songs from another.

Four members of Sequentia showed up at Schoenberg Hall this time, including Bagby as a congenial host, in a program of secular music from the 10th and 11th centuries: love songs, philosophical songs, a bit of ribaldry now and then, their passions laid bare in the elegance of their melodic lines and the pungency of the parallel fourths and fifths of their harmonies. Strangest and, in many ways, most provocative was an 11th-century Icelandic recitative detailing an episode from the Nibelung saga that would later find its way across time to Wagner and, more specifically, to the great Fritz Lang silent cycle. A splendid evening, all told, of music to revel in — and to think about.

The Irvine program, at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church — with its huge, brand-new mosaics that will need a few centuries’ accretions before they can challenge Ravenna’s — looked good on paper: Anonymous 4 and the Chilingirian String Quartet in an “End of Time” concert of music old and new. “Old,” however, won by an impressive margin. “New” was another slice off the ambling, purring musical rhetoric of England’s Sir John Tavener, a piece called The Bridegroom co-commissioned by Eclectic Orange, and not much different from Tavener’s last piece or the one before: Philip Glass plus incense but, at least, shorter. The text — the symbolism of Christ-as-bridegroom better deployed in Bach’s Wachet auf! cantata — rolls along, chokingly perfumed in Tavener’s redolent harmonies. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, also on the program in the string-quartet version, speaks the same language of spiritual minimalism but manages exactly what Tavener’s doesn’t: It moves — as music and as a message of and to the spirit.

By themselves, Anonymous 4 began the program all aglow, in passages from their latest CD, a Mass dating from, give or take, A.D. 1000, delivered in that cherishable Anonymous 4 manner that manages at once to sound both pure and wondrously rich, that makes everything they sing sound newly composed. Starting a program with music on that level inevitably imposed a burden on the music that ensued — the Tavener, a reworking of Britten’s lightweight Missa Brevis (originally for boys and organ), and Stravinsky’s spicy, short string-quartet pieces.

The Strasbourg six, strong of arm and fleet of foot, almost didn’t make it to LACMA; their journey south from their previous gig in Vancouver was intercepted by a trigger-happy customs bureaucrat who chose to ignore thoroughly-in-order documents and had to be called off at the last minute through the intervention of Senator Barbara Boxer. The delayed arrival necessitated a program change, but no real loss. François-Bernard Mâche’s Aera began it, a marvelous, airy piece filling seemingly infinite spaces with the whispers of Thai gongs, bells, marimbas and soft timpani rolls. Iannis Xenakis’ heaven-storming Pléiades — composed in 1979 for the city of Strasbourg and for this ensemble — ended it, a work (said the program) about “multiplicity and undefinability” but also (to these ears) about the raw power of music’s elementals to inspire . . . maybe not love, but at least awe.

What an extraordinary work this is: nearly 45 minutes of proclamation and exploration into the way banged-upon instruments can uplift and exhilarate. The Strasbourg six have recorded it, on Denon: a must-have item. The sounds are amazing, even when they don’t pound you into submission; some of them come from the sixxen, newly invented for this work (six +Xena.kis), a glorious spook of an instrument made up of metal plates played with a keyboard and wailing like a banshee. Who else but Xenakis could devise such exquisite torture? I only wish the guy from customs had been there, bound and gagged in the front row.