Photo by Betty FreemanBoy Wonderful
At 35, Thomas Adès continues to surprise, delight, mystify and elude me. If I had my way, everyone on the planet would own the new EMI recording of his recent Piano Quintet, as the indisputable evidence that classical music is still being created as a manner of expression urgent, powerful and meaningful. The disc also contains Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet of 182 years before, and I would like to believe that the coupling is not accidental. Something about youth, exhilaration and a healthy disregard for set-in-stone artistic conventions bonds these two works over the two centuries that separate them chronologically. The fact that the omnipotent Adès is the pianist in both works on this indispensable disc strengthens the bond.The Adès Quintet is a single movement lasting about 20 minutes. The musical discourse — the pianist and the splendid Arditti Quartet — is spirited and seems to touch on matters of great import but with great good humor and a touch of the punster. A constant stylistic vacillation — grinding dissonance here, butter-wouldn’t-melt consonance there — forms an explosive mix. At one juncture a tangle of harsh counterpoint nears the incendiary point, and a sudden phrase of Mozart (or Brahms? or honky-tonk?) floats by to lighten the atmosphere. I admire the wisdom here, the energy. Ten years ago, with Asyla and the high-camp opera Powder Her Face, there was some fear that this new kid on the block might burn out too quickly, as Wunderkinder have been known to do. But this Quintet is a work in which bedazzlement links up with brain power. The Schubert performance (with the Belcea Quartet) is, perhaps, a shade hard-edged, but you need more than one approach to this sublime work on your shelf anyhow, and surely an Alfred Brendel or an Artur Schnabel recording can’t be that hard to find.Adès is due here next February: a two-week Philharmonic “residency” in programs that include a new violin concerto and, better yet, scenes from his opera drawn from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which will also be done complete at Santa Fe next summer). I know the opera so far from a video and an audio from two London performances with different casts. What I have said about the Quintet goes many times over for this extraordinary score, which restores to the lyric stage an operatic setting of true literary quality: not merely continuing the lyric language from where Benjamin Britten left it at his death, but moving far onward from there toward a new expressive level.
There is no long-term good news from the County Museum concerning its decision to phase out its serious musical activities. Press releases and proclamations from officials in high places continue to trumpet the tone-deaf philosophy that an art museum’s sole responsibility is to serve the visual arts, and anything else becomes mere distraction. Nobody at LACMA, apparently, seems at all aware of the broadening provided by the music at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Chicago Art Institute (most of it free) and on down a distinguished list.LACMA’s contemporary-music programming will be the greatest loss — to the public, and to the stature of the museum itself. I have no head for public relations — a matter of some personal pride — but it strikes me as a kind of PR suicide that LACMA should be painting itself into a corner on its music policies at the same time that it’s catching all the flak for playing footsie with commercial interests on the King Tut front. At least there’s a fine interplay of ironies – and a thread of nobility as well – in the news that CalArts will now sponsor the EAR Unit residency concerts at its REDCAT Theater at the Music Center. Founded at CalArts in 1981, spun off in ’87, resident at LACMA since then, the EAR Unit has served its community as everything a living, throbbing, creative artistic pulse should be. For LACMA to self-amputate such a vital force from its own artistic center constitutes a confession of inadequacy, ignorance and incompetence I find painful to contemplate.Before his death in July, Dorrance Stalvey had planned the one last Monday Evening Concert series that LACMA has allowed him; it begins on October 17. First of all, it is a triumphant retrospective of worldwide performers whose Los Angeles debuts were at these concerts: the amazing Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, the Penderecki and Parisii String Quartets, the extraordinary pianist Marino Formenti (who will end the series with a four-hour marathon “Homage”). Scodanibbio will be joined by the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, about whom I wrote adoringly some weeks back. New York’s Continuum will play a Milton Babbitt program. The two former “resident” ensembles, XTET and the EAR Unit, have a program each. The Flux Quartet will perform Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet. Pianist Sergey Schepkin will play Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and music by Stalvey.
The Monday Evening Concerts — formerly Evenings on the Roof — flourished in many
venues, including some more congenial, before moving into LACMA’s Bing Theater
in 1961, 22 years into their history. If LACMA now chooses to disown them and
their distinguished history, LACMA’s is the loss. The lesson from the LACMA years,
notably the last three decades under Stalvey’s virtually single-handed leadership,
is that an amazing run of strong-willed, stimulating, brave concert programming
can be assembled and produced — even in a drab, unwelcoming, poorly lit,
oversize room, with no organization support, no promotion, on some nights no parking-lot
management — if somebody out front is dedicated to the proposition that it serves
the betterment of the arts. It’s hard to believe that somewhere in this community
there doesn’t exist the backup, and the locale, to continue this vital service.
Photo by Betty FreemanBoy Wonderful