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Twice Fifteen

Last Breaths

During the several years’ survey of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Philharmonic has had the admirable idea of preceding each symphony with the like-numbered string quartet in a pre-concert presentation, performed by orchestra members. Those quartet performances were later repeated as part of the Philharmonic’s “Chamber Music” series. The matchup hasn’t always been exact; the pastoral gentility of the Fifth Quartet made for a curious contrast with the raucous street parades of the Fifth Symphony.

In last week’s concert, which paired the final work in each series — the harrowing death processionals of the Quartet No. 15, which unfurl in 35 minutes of near silence, and the grinning death masks of the Symphony No. 15, which usher out the composer’s last musical breaths in music of almost indescribable desolation — the match was exact and shattering. The marvelous reading of the Quartet, by orchestra members Bing Wang, Varty Manouelian, Meredith Snow and Peter Stumpf, was somewhat undermined by the sound of latecomers tromping over Disney Hall’s resonant floors; their performance will be repeated under proper concert conditions on November 29. The Symphony was flung forth under the leadership of guest conductor Andrey Boreyko, young, flamboyant chief conductor of orchestras at Hamburg and Bern, obviously headed topward.

What are we to make of this final symphony, with its strange baggage of trivial references and percussive effects from a battery of toys, nose to nose with dire Wagnerisms and those final nihilistic pages? Solomon Volkov, in his now-discredited “memoir,” has Shostakovich talking of a 15th Symphony based on Chekhov; that, we know, didn’t happen. The symphony dates from times of poor health; some of it must be a final sweeping-out of very old memories, some from childhood. However strange these digressions — most memorable, of course, the references to Rossini’s William Tell — the symphony in proper hands becomes a work of mounting power. Kurt Sanderling’s performances, here in 1988, revealed what the work was all about. Young Boreyko, I think, has captured some of that insight. Against dietitian’s orders, I remained to the concert’s end, and allowed myself to be captivated by his intense and totally thrilling unwinding of Tchaikovsky’s high-carb Romeo and Juliet. It’s nothing but lettuce and water for me now for a week.

Boreyko is also the conductor on the latest release in ECM’s ongoing service to the endlessly varied and unpredictable body of music by Arvo Pärt. Lamentate is, for once, a large-scale work for piano and orchestra — well, actually not so large-scale, since it breaks down into 10 movements, many lasting little over a minute. The inspiration is Marsyas, the imposing sculpture created by Anish Kapoor at London’s Tate Modern, which has inspired, says Pärt, “a lamento not for the dead but for the living.” That is, indeed, the mood: quiet, penetrating, with the kind of stabbing, poignant harmony you may best know from such works as Fratres. Alexei Lubimov is the pianist; both he and the conductor have mastered the composer’s unique art of causing time to stop.

Truth, Beauty, Fantasy
I don’t mean to sound obsessed with the Santa Monica concert series known as Jacaranda. (We are just good friends.) It’s just that its concerts have generally been so fine, its programs so adventuresome, the audience growth — in the handsome, small and comfortable First Presbyterian Church — has been so encouraging, and I wonder why in three years the L.A. Times has chosen to review only two of its programs.

Saturday’s program was all Schubert, including two works from his last year — the Trio in E flat and the F-minor Fantasy for piano duet — whose magnificence everybody takes on faith but that rarely turn up in live performance. Most gorgeously accoutered of all music’s elephants, the Trio crashes headlong through outer space, fearlessly chasing its own tail, endlessly and arrogantly reiterating its blustering key changes, which under some star-borne momentum actually seem to intensify in momentum and ecstasy. Jacaranda’s resident players — violinist Sarah Thornblade, cellist Tim Loo and, need one add, pianist Gloria Cheng — played as if delighted to imbibe the music’s dangerous brew. By mid-finale, by the forty-’leventh mad Schubertian hurtle from E flat to C flat, it seemed as if all willing souls in that enchanted space “at the edge of Santa Monica” were sharing the same spell, and happy to be there.

The Fantasy, that troubled outcry that intrepid pianists (including myself in braver times) attempt at home but rarely get to hear alive in concert, stands up to the Trio as an exact opposite: terse and stern, melting only in the magical moment when the melancholy F-minor theme dissolves into a momentary wisp of F major. It was that work of Schubert, above all others, that first made me aware — as a Berkeley grad student shopping for a thesis topic — of his scope and depth. As Gloria Cheng and Steven Vanhauwaert performed it last Saturday, my own 60 years with Schubert passed by most agreeably. (We were just good friends.)

More Schubert ended the program, with utter delight: four of his choral pieces, quite nicely sung by 32 members of the Cal State Fullerton Men’s Chorus. Two of them were short and familiar, but two were special. One was Nachthelle, an ecstatic nocturne for high tenor (Shawn Thuris) and voices; the other, Nachtgesangim Walde, perched on a Wagnerian threshold, set a long, woodsy text for voices and, up in the organ loft, a quartet of French horns. Talk about your magic!?


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