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Witchcraft

I had forgotten -- if, indeed, I ever knew -- the somber, deep beauties of On Wenlock Edge. Nothing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music, I must confess, has been a boon companion the past few years, perhaps as my expiation for a youthful crush on a couple of his early symphonies. Ian Bostridge‘s singing of this song cycle, to end last week’s magical program by the Philharmonic‘s Chamber Music Society at Gindi Auditorium, was a double exhilaration -- the power of the music and the extraordinary quality of the performance.

The songs date from 1909: six poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, composed for and first sung by the English tenor Gervase Elwes, whose 1917 recording of the cycle remains in Schwann; the only other listed recording is by Bostridge, with full orchestra. Last week, however, Bostridge sang it as written, with string quartet and piano, and the results were exquisite: the small, lean sounds of four Philharmonic string players perfectly matched to the gleam of this wonderful young singer‘s pure yet intense re-creation of Housman’s gales and fogs and distant bells, all riding on the dark billows from Julius Drake‘s supporting piano.

Someone from the Philharmonic told me that subscribers to the chamber-music series, and perhaps to the orchestral series downtown as well, don’t like it when vocal music is mixed into the programs; this attitude is echoed by the managements of our two ”serious“ (ha-ha) radio stations, which strive mightily to keep their prime hours free of human intrusion. If there is a more ravishing sound anywhere in music than the singing of Bostridge that night (in the Vaughan Williams and in Faure‘s equally enchanting La Bonne Chanson), or two nights later at Costa Mesa’s Eclectic Orange festival (in songs of Schubert and Wolf), it could only be from some other human throat: Renee Fleming as Dvorak‘s Russalka, perhaps, or Thomas Quasthoff’s Mozart. Beside any of this, the most beautiful instrument in the world remains what it basically is, a machine.

Bostridge, 35-ish, is amazing, and so is his story: a singer endowed with an intelligence that penetrates deeply into the nature of songs and of the way to sing them -- all emerging fully formed, to start a full-time career on the run no more than five years ago. Before that he had earned his doctorate in history and philosophy; you can order his thesis, Witchcraft and Its Transformations 1650--1750 (Oxford), from your favorite dot-com. My colleagues have exhausted the metaphors warehouse in describing his stage manner, which seems to be no manner at all except an earnestness of presentation aimed more at the music than the audience. At Costa Mesa, in the intimate and agreeably improv setting of the Performing Arts Center‘s Founders Hall, he had a different way of sharing his Schubert from his way with the more extroverted Hugo Wolf group; in neither case was there anything about his performance that didn’t relate clearly to the music. Onstage he is the winsome but eager postgrad; I kept thinking of Alec Guinness in his white suit. But neither Guinness nor anyone else you can name could summon the witchcraft to transmute Schubert‘s ”Nacht und Traume“ into the ethereal presence that it became that night in Costa Mesa. I returned home, took down Bostridge’s Schubert disc on EMI, and died happy, more than once.

Between these sublime events there came Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica. Perhaps it was the chronology, perhaps not, but I found myself among the few who remained unenchanted in the almost-full Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that night. Something about Eight Seasons, Kremer‘s new project, recorded on Nonesuch and much-hyped, spanning the centuries to blend the spirits of Antonio Vivaldi and Astor Piazzolla into a single, highly seasoned concoction, just doesn’t work for me. Yes, both Vivaldi and Piazzolla composed sets of pieces celebrating the passage of the four seasons, in Venice and in Buenos Aires. At the Hollywood Bowl two summers ago, Kremer and his attractive young ensemble from Baltic lands showed off a nice, bright way of energizing Vivaldi‘s delirious set of fantasies that blew away the detritus of overfamiliarity. Now, however, they play the piece zebra-fashion, with Piazzolla’s less familiar but also charming set interspersed between Vivaldi‘s, and with a few licks stuck onto the music in Kremer’s re-fashioning to simulate some kind of relation between the two. Well, I‘ve lived a long time with Vivaldi, and not yet long enough with the Piazzolla; at home I can program my player to hear all of one or the other. In concert, however interesting the music, it came over as a sequence of jolts.

A suite of bits from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock‘s Psycho began the program; Alfred Schnittke’s Sixth Concerto Grosso came midway and became by some distance the evening‘s most powerful music. Someone -- perhaps Esa-Pekka or someone else that good -- needs to take Herrmann’s acid-drenched score and work it into a continuous piece; as a series of short bits, none over two minutes, separated by pauses -- as at Kremer‘s concert and as on Salonen’s admirable Sony disc of Herrmann‘s music -- it also seemed like a sequence of jolts.

In a remote land called Springdale, Utah, there live two citizens whose lives intertwine. One is Garland Hirschi, an old codger who raises cows. The other is Phillip Kent Bimstein, a younger codger who raises money by composing. ”You wanna know a little bit about my cows?“ said Garland Hirschi into ”Flip“ Bimstein’s microphone, and Bimstein took the tape and processed it, along with copious cow sounds recorded live or synthesized, into a tone poem in three ”moo-vements“ (his word, not mine), and while my description mightn‘t sound that way, the results are delightful. Garland Hirschi’s Cows exists on a Starkland CD, and it was the kickoff work at the California EAR Unit‘s latest concert at the County Museum. It set a tone for the entire concert, which was full of hijinks, high energy and, for the most part, high quality.

Most of the program kept the group’s percussion contingent -- Dan Kennedy and Amy Knoles, the god and goddess of the big bang -- particularly busy. I was least taken by Steven Mackey‘s new Micro-Concerto for Percussion and Five Instruments, excessively long (despite its title) for what it had to say. There were also tidy, short works by David Lang and the much-missed Jacob Druckman, a marvelous, atmospheric new piece by Ching-Wen Chao and, best of all, a gloriously complex piece by master percussionist John Bergamo -- dating from 1986, the oldest music on the program, and the youngest at heart.