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Time Spent With Morty

At the County Museum last week, a fair-size crowd sat through Morton Feldman‘s Crippled Symmetry with remarkable attentiveness, the near silence in the auditorium blending into the near silence on the stage. Two or three people left before the end. I counted six coughs -- of which three were mine. The piece was listed to run 90 minutes; it ran close to 110. I heard no complaints. Three members of the EAR Unit -- Amy Knoles on glockenspiel and vibes, Dorothy Stone with her two flutes, Vicki Ray at piano and celesta -- performed in such a way that “heroic” would be only the beginning of the deserved praise.

I’m never sure what to say, or even think, about Feldman. For anyone who once knew him, the discrepancy between the sound of him (deepest Bronx) and the eloquence of his written perceptions -- not to mention his music, which is mostly fashioned out of air -- is an unsurmountable mismatch. His essay also called Crippled Symmetry runs 14 large pages; when I‘ve struggled through it (trying as hard as I can to keep the sound of Morty himself out of my ears), I find myself agonizingly overinformed in matters including Webern, Cage, the “crippled symmetries” of certain Middle Eastern rug patterns and the mathematical formulas they may -- or may not -- generate. Does the music called Crippled Symmetry depend on my assimilating all this writing of the same name? I’m not sure.

I ask because the music itself, even without recourse to patterns and formulas, is so extraordinarily beautiful. It hovers; it sends out flickers of light; its three players engage in discourse far removed from the reality of a drab museum auditorium, or from the fact of 8:30 on a Wednesday night. Given the fluidity of the music, its way of casting silvery strands across silences, I am always amazed at the exactitude of Feldman‘s scores -- this piece, and also his For Philip Guston, which calls for the same instruments but runs twice as long.

A Feldman experience, 14 years after his death, is as close to an act of communion as any music I can think of from Western civilization. The recordings, even the ones garnished with my program notes, simply don’t make it. It demands live performers and live listeners sharing the same air.

January‘s entry on the Los Angeles Opera schedule originally called for three performances of a Spanish-language version of Lehar’s The Merry Widow, to follow the English-language production that had thudded across the Music Center stage the month before. As the better part of valor, La Viuda Alegre gave way instead to a concert program of zarzuela excerpts -- which in turn gave way to a one-shot half-zarzuela--half-Viennese-operetta evening. This is what actually transpired last week, which is not the same as saying that it should have. Some of the Widow‘s English-language cast, who had also been scheduled for the Spanish version, now found themselves singing Lehar’s bits and pieces in the original German. Never question the inscrutability of opera and its world.

The resultant confusion of tongues made for an evening somewhat less than zippy. You didn‘t need your Spanish lessons to recognize where the loyalties lay that night, onstage and out front as well. The Viennese stuff started well enough: John DeMain guiding the orchestra through a nicely nuanced, insinuating Fledermaus Overture. From there, however, it was downhill: Julia Migenes in an unequal struggle with a showoff number from Countess Maritza, Placido in a graceless “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” Virginia Tola and Charles Castronovo reprising their Merry Widow duet (but this time in a hesitant German), and a helter-skelter dash through Fledermaus’ enchanting “Duidu, duidu” ensemble.

Came the zarzuela half, and the temperature in the hall rose noticeably. Tola repeated her steamy “Cancion Española” that had won hearts during the Domingo-sponsored “Operalia”; she and Domingo sang the big duet from El Gato Montes (not exactly a zarzuela, however) that the L.A. Opera had produced in 1994. Migenes, though part Puerto Rican, sang exactly nada in the Spanish half. The grand restoration of the zarzuela repertory, promised by Domingo year after year as a potentially valuable bridge builder to the Latino community, remains unbroached.

A program note dedicated the above proceedings to the memory of Peter Hemmings, the Los Angeles Opera‘s founding general director, who had died the week before. Where others had failed, or succeeded only halfway, Hemmings planted the operatic seed in the Los Angeles cultural desert and nursed it into full bloom. Determinedly ignoring a chorus of naysayers, charming a support structure into existence by dint of soft-spoken earnestness and elegant British tailoring, Hemmings came to Los Angeles with the mission of founding that city’s first-ever world-class opera company, and fulfilled that mission with surprising ease. Even the ultimate omen -- the curtain that stuck halfway up at the opening-night Otello -- did not block his upward path. When he retired in June 2000 -- yielding his place to his hand-picked company superstar and logical successor, Placido Domingo -- his 14-year-old Los Angeles Opera had long shaken off its initial omens and challenges.

He moved wisely and well. Installing Domingo as resident superstar gave out word that the Los Angeles Opera would rise above the city‘s boondocks reputation. A fine mix of repertory and exotic items -- Otello, Butterfly, Fiery Angel, Wozzeck, Mahagonny, Don Giovanni, the complete Les Troyens -- enhanced that reputation. So did some enlightened backstage choices: Goetz Friedrich to stage Otello and Janacek, David Hockney to design Tristan und Isolde, Peter Sellars to move Pelleas et Melisande to a Malibu beachfront, Simon Rattle to conduct Wozzeck. As in the case of any company afflicted with high ambitions, there were duds here and there; we local critics could count on a couple of yearly one-on-one confrontations, over a splendid lunch, to defend (with score sheets and full documentation) this inadequate conductor or that tottering diva.

From the start, Hemmings appended an active Resident Artist apprenticeship program to the company’s operations, out of which several major artists have emerged -- baritone Rodney Gilfry for one, a walk-on in the company‘s first night and now a worldwide star. Hemmings’ final Los Angeles production was a triumphant Billy Budd with Gilfry as Billy. Like that star, the Los Angeles Opera had grown impressively -- from a 22-performance first season to well over 60, most of them sold out, in Hemmings‘ final year.

In 1998 Hemmings was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He returned to England in the summer of 2000 and, after a brief bout with cancer, died at his home in Dorset, survived by his wife, Jane, and five children.


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