Christopher O’Riley toiled honorably at the Hollywood Bowl last week, and so did the Philharmonic under its excellent assistant conductor Yasuo Shinozaki, but the music slumbered on. Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto has, I’m afraid, reached the end of its useful days. Like its spavined companions in the ranks of warhorses ready for the glue factory — names on request, starting perhaps with the César Franck symphony and lurching downward from there — its bones have been picked dry. I still give it a little shelf space, in distinguished past readings by the likes of Dinu Lipatti and Walter Gieseking, but I’m convinced that Mr. Grieg and I will remain on friendlier terms if we now acknowledge each other’s existence in silence.
O’Riley is a skillful, caring pianist. I think that what he was trying the other night, with his tempos on the slow side and his relatively limited dynamics, was to reinvent the piece, to wrap it in soft, romantic accents as if to reiterate its obvious kinship with the one past masterpiece it most closely resembles. That didn’t work; all his approach seemed to accomplish was to point out the great debt owed by Grieg’s inferior piece to the infinitely superior concerto of Robert Schumann composed 23 years earlier. Strange, isn’t it, how close these two concertos are, how much design and actual melodic substance the later work actually cribs from the earlier work — and how, in terms of survival strength, the glorious Schumann concerto towers over the pallid rip-off by the lesser spirit from the North.
It was, in fact, a week of warhorses at the Bowl, with the Grieg at the low point, and a couple of Slavic symphonies whose staying power remains intact. The Philharmonic’s two backup men were in charge, the splendid Shinozaki and the ebullient Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Both young conductors are well on their way toward important careers: Shinozaki as a much-admired guest with several orchestras in Finland, Harth-Bedoya as head of the Fort Worth Symphony. Our own orchestra would do well to hold on to as much of their services as it can.
Borodin’s Second Symphony concluded Shinozaki’s program in a bright, vivid performance; like most of the works by this insecure and alcohol-ravaged member of the Russian “Five” (and by his compatriot Mussorgsky), the music needed several other hands to bring it to completion. But the resultant hybrid is strong stuff: the brutal menace of the first movement, the airy edginess of the scherzo (written in the curious time signature of 1/1) and, above all, the ecstasies of the haunting slow movement. Maybe it hasn’t yet attained “warhorse” status, in fact; I kept discovering previously unnoticed musical turns in Shinozaki’s performance. Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, which began Harth-Bedoya’s program, may be better music by some hypothetical measurement; in a sensible, dry-eyed performance such as Harth-Bedoya delivered, its emotional impact can still be overpowering. An excess of fame garnered over its 110-year lifetime has relegated it to the “Oh no, not that again!” category, and its beautiful orchestral points — the interplay of winds and strings that makes Dvorák’s orchestral works better company than their close relatives from the pen of Brahms — didn’t all come across through the Bowl’s amplification. Still, Harth-Bedoya’s reading got me to sit up straight and pay proper attention.
Prokofiev’s lightweight score for the (apparently, alas, lost) film Lieutenant Kije came and went congenially midway in Shinozaki’s program, its orchestral fine points victimized by poor mike placement. Samuel Barber’s enchanting Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which should have cast a further glow on the Harth-Bedoya program, was rendered virtually textless by Elissa Johnston’s poor diction. A dear, departed old friend did, however, turn up in the Barber work, in the program notes by Nicolas Slonimsky, which dealt wisely and wittily with what the music was about and how it was meant to sound. They don’t write ’em like that anymore — not often enough, at any rate.
A new ECM release on the shelves next Tuesday offers two works by USC’s Stephen Hartke that create a fascinating linkup between the spirits of adventure bygone and up-to-date. Tituli, the first and longer of the works (42 minutes), draws upon fragments of inscriptions carved or scratched onto ancient Roman artifacts, and expands seven of these brief phrases into complex musical structures for small vocal ensemble, a solo violin and percussion. The music itself is a haunting mix of the mannerisms of ancient chant — harmonies in the parallel movement known as organum mingled with a rhapsodic melodic line for the violinist and a background of solemn thudding from small drums and the lower register of a marimba. If you share my passion for a previous ECM release called Mnemosyne, in which Jan Garbarek’s ecstatic saxophones twined around voices intoning chantlike music old and new, you should recognize a kindred spirit in this new work of Hartke’s — which, by the way, was one of the three finalists for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize.
Once again, as in Mnemosyne, the singers are the members of the Hilliard Ensemble (with a couple of personnel changes and their number upped from four to five). Michelle Makarski is the violinist; Lynn Vartan and Javier Diaz are the percussionists. The performance originated at USC in January 2001, conducted by Donald Crockett. The companion work is Hartke’s 18-minute Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain for voices alone, a setting of words and moods by the Japanese poet and sculptor Kotaro Takamura. Here the inspiration is a visual image, the ecstasy of the writer’s first view of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Again, the harmonies draw upon influences old and new: passages of organum that translate the look of Notre Dame’s grandiose interior into deep, dark sound, and an exhilarating sound-picture of the rainstorm itself.
Next week the New York Philharmonic performs Hartke’s Third Symphony, a commissioned work that again employs the Hilliard Ensemble, with an Anglo-Saxon text prophetic of the 9/11 catastrophe. In 2006 the enterprising Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York will stage his new commissioned opera, based on the Maupassant short story Boule de Suif. A satirical cantata, Sons of Noah, in which the sons fight over dividing up the property even before the ark has landed, was released on the New World label earlier this year; a clarinet concerto written for Richard Stoltzman is listed for release on Naxos this month. Hartke, at the moment, rides high.