Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, played by the Vienna Philharmonic at Orange County‘s Segerstrom Hall last week, oozed along its murky path for almost exactly 90 minutes. Any one of Arnold Schoenberg’s piano pieces, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion four nights later, engaged Peter Serkin‘s mind and fingers for something like two minutes. Try to convince me that Bruckner’s maudlin meanderings contained 45 times the musical value of the Schoenberg, and I will counterpropose an ear exam or perhaps a brain scan.
This Bruckner stuff: It reaches out as if the Book of Revelation could somehow achieve translation into the mere mortality of a symphony orchestra. Its only revelation, however, is of self-importance at its least potent. In Vienna he is still revered; I have been to performances there where the ultimate tribute was for the audience to exit in silence. Yes, the Vienna Philharmonic, with its golden horns and its strings of purest silk, may have been ordained by God and his angels to transmute these textbook orchestrations and elementary exercises in invertible counterpoint into something resembling music. There is one 10-second purple patch in the slow movement of the Eighth — a rising scale crowned at the top by some celestial harp biz — that does provide momentary shivers for all of its six-bar duration. It hardly compensates for the other 89-plus minutes of agonizing boredom and — worse — predictability.
Even in Segerstrom‘s bland acoustical setting, the touted Vienna sound was immediately recognizable. All the better on the second of its three nights, when the orchestra’s awareness of the hall was more firmly fixed and the music at hand — Mozart, Schubert, Berg — more deserving of the care being lavished. Bernard Haitink is a serious, trustworthy leader. His management of the Schubert Ninth filled both time and space with caressing, propulsive, immensely lovable sounds — 53 minutes (even without the prescribed first- and last-movement repeats), and every one of them precious. The Mozart ”Haffner“ Symphony, however, was somewhat compromised by an overlarge string contingent that muddied the work‘s chamber-music balance.
Alban Berg’s Opus 6 orchestral pieces — ”Berg‘s confessions to Dr. Freud,“ as Esa-Pekka Salonen described them last year in a pre-concert talk — came over in wondrous clarity. At the end there was booing; Segerstrom’s drab acoustics may damage the sound from the stage, but the noises out in the hall — cell phones, candy wrappers, audience reactions — carry all too well. With Orange County‘s recent cultural advances, largely due to the Philharmonic Society’s enlightened bookings, of which the Vienna stint was one, there remain pockets of resistance to the artworks of the just-concluded century, even to Berg‘s pre-atonal music of 1915. (There are evidently pockets of resistance to the 19th century as well; the O.C. Register’s Tim Mangan has sent along a reader‘s letter grousing about the Berg pieces and then also finding the ”Shubert [sic] very long and really tiresome.“) The clouds of war persist.
From Vienna, too, there came H.K. (Heinz Karl) Gruber, who claims the Franz Gruber of ”Silent Night“ as ancestor, and whose twinkling, nose-thumbing music lies far more in the Viennese lineage of Schubert than that of Bruckner. Frankenstein is his best-known work, although the EMI recording under Franz Welser-Most is no longer listed: a weirdly captivating half-hour pastiche of pop and serious with a ”chansonnier“ reading kiddie poetry about monsters and an orchestra of toy and adult instruments. Aerial is Gruber’s 22-minute trumpet concerto from 1999, and however you take its title, you‘d probably be right. He wrote it for the airborne talents of the phenomenal Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, who performed it here — and how! — with Daniel Harding and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This piece is also something of a pastiche. Its outside influences include Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Fred and Ginger‘s dancing; the soloist gets to do some fancy switching through an array of sophisticated trumpets of various sizes plus a kind of Swedish folk trumpet fashioned from a cow’s horn and sounding not unlike a cow‘s moo. (As an encore, Hardenberger played a solo on that instrument alone.)
Aerial is all over the place, delightfully so. The trumpeter gets to sing along with his playing; his solos bend away from ”normal“ tonalities. I haven’t heard a new piece in a long time that so reflected its composer‘s sheer joy in creating it, nor its soloist’s exhilaration in his own virtuosity. The piece is full of tricks, but also full of music. Charles Ives‘ Central Park in the Dark preceded it on the program, a splendid programming touch — two pieces composed 90 years apart, each driven by the abrasive power of its off-kilter creative energy. The well-worn awfulness of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben finally brought the evening back to Earth, but not enough to erase memories of the high flying that had happened before.
High flying . . . the California EAR Unit has been doing just that for 20 years as of now. Last week‘s concert at LACMA celebrated its anniversary in a procession through the hall with kazoos and flashing lights and a retrospective program of typical EAR Unit pieces. Former EARfolk Jim, Art and Gloria were on hand to join Dorothy, Marty, Robin, Erika, Vicki and Amy; neither they nor their music seems to have aged much. An old sampler film of the group’s music making, back when Amy‘s hair was long and Dorothy’s was short, proved the longevity of their spirit.
The EAR Unit‘s activities assert, above all, that inventive new music can, if properly nurtured, maintain the power to pound the emotions and tickle the ear, sometimes simultaneously. Fred Rzewski’s 1971 Coming Together, the program‘s earliest piece, bore out that premise: an insistent work that knits phrases from a letter by an Attica Prison inmate (who would later be martyred) into a shattering instrumental background. So did the most recent, the 1998 Girlfriend by Bang-on-a-Can’s Julia Wolfe, an interweave of dirgelike instrumental music and horrifying sounds of traffic accidents. The crowd at LACMA that night was not as large as it should have been, but that‘s a constant problem at the museum, with its zero promotional budget. It’s a source of amazement and joy that these concerts — and groups like the EAR Unit itself — survive at all.