Get this: “New music has never been an integral part of the winter-season diet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On those rare occasions when our orchestra ventures an acknowledgement of the contemporary composer, the subscription audiences respond with stoic endurance at best, rude disdain at worst . . . The Philharmonic has never demonstrated a thorough, ongoing commitment to music of the relatively recent 20th Century. Instead, it has made sporadic, dutiful gestures . . . Our orchestra has at best created a ghetto for any art that tries to look forward rather than backward.”
I came across these words while poking around in old L.A. Times files for something to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Philharmonic’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, the venture that, five years later, renamed itself less scrutably as “The Green Umbrella.” The author of those wishful words, dating from October 5, 1981, was the Times’ then music critic Martin Bernheimer, whose mission among us seemed largely devoted to stamping out the notion of music as a matter for serious cultural advancement. The shards of his clouded crystal ball are all around us: Berio and Grisey at the reborn Monday Evening Concerts, the stage works of Pierre Audi and Robert Wilson at the L.A. Opera, this past week’s “Green Umbrella” concert at Disney, the one before that, and all the way back to their founding, under the scornful nose of Bernheimer, a quarter-century ago.
These concerts began small-scale, at the Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo, where one main advantage was the access to good, cheap food. A later move to Zipper Hall cost us that. The move to Disney seemed even more foolhardy: so many seats to fill, at too-high prices, once the Disney glamour wore off. Four seasons later, the too-high prices remain, but the seats are still filled — not to capacity, but still impressively for adventurous, new-music fare. Visiting concert managers and composers confess to astonishment at the size and response of the “Green Umbrella” audiences; what was this about “rude disdain”?
Take last week’s concert. The program had to be cobbled together quickly after Dawn Upshaw’s illness, and it was a beaut: music from old Los Angeles friends and new, cheered by not a sellout but certainly (for a concert of new music) an amazing-sized audience. It began with the Chain I by Witold Lutoslawski, an old friend; he had taught Steven Stucky, who has curated the Philharmonic’s new-music activities for years, and was himself on the program. The two made a splendid mix: Stucky leaning toward the conservative, Lutoslawski with a lovely thread of whimsy. Both were represented by splendid, small-scale works, and it was Stucky’s melting, loving string quartet Nell’ombra Nella Luce (repeated from a previous Chamber Music Society concert) that most immediately won hearts. The teacher-pupil relationship persisted with music by Franco Donatoni — Hot (piccolo sax and ensemble in high hysteria) — and his star disciple, Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose brand-new Catch and Release ended the evening in comparable high spirits. For the latter work — three movements, intensely motivated but somewhat given to fly off the handle — Salonen had declined to provide a program note. I would not be surprised if the version we heard, rushed into performance to fill the programming gap, was not quite the last word.
The fulminations of Bernheimer were as the mewlings of pussycats compared to the verbal barricades raised by the formidable Olin Downes — critic first at the Boston Post, later entrenched at The New York Times. His hegemony at both papers coincided more or less exactly with the rise in fame (or, as Downes would have it, in notoriety) of the music of Gustav Mahler. By 1918, still in Boston, he had propounded two principles that would govern his life: that worldwide damnation lay in the music of Gustav Mahler and that only Jan Sibelius held the keys to salvation. His writing style suggested a collaboration, with the other half of the team none other than the Lord Almighty. “We believe the music itself will be shelved,” he — oops, they — wrote in 1918, at the Boston premiere of Mahler’s Second Symphony, “long before the memory of the man and his services to his art will be forgotten.” And at another event, he simply took his leave from the concert hall in midperformance, and then simply wrote, “We do not like the Mahler Seventh Symphony.” On that occasion, the great Arnold Schoenberg, horrified at such effrontery, took it upon himself to scold the errant Mr. Downes. They argued back and forth for several weeks; the correspondence, published in Schoenberg’s Collected Letters, looms large in the annals of criticism.
What they might have missed just last week! I too, in my days of indiscretion, have had my reservations about certain expanses of the overstuffed Mahler. Friday night’s performance of the Seventh Symphony was, in a word, transforming: the Philharmonic under Salonen the source of an audible substance not yet heard, in a range of color not yet seen. Gatherings of instruments whispering, now under light strokes, now under exultant percussion . . . somebody stop me! By a great orchestra, in a great hall, under a great conductor, this was one of the great performances.
All things to all people: The night before, there was Sting, not with memories of Police or Stewart Copeland (until the last number) but with Disney absolutely filled with a happy crowd that seemed to know why they were there. (For myself, I wasn’t so sure, at first.) The music at hand was by John Dowland, the Renaissance fabricator of exquisite, sad songs and slow, haunting lute tunes. (He made much of the pun on his name: dolens: “grieving.”) Between songs, Sting read lines from letters, or perhaps diary entries, outlining the sad journey of Dowland’s life, which was, indeed, a dolorous concoction compounded of rejections by potential employers and lovers. Edin Karamazov, a lutenist and guitarist who has performed with Paul Hillier and Jordi Savall, played on both instruments, somewhat percussively to my taste. Sting also played his own collection of lutes and guitars. A men’s octet, the Concord Ensemble, sang along on a few numbers, not nearly enough.
The beauty of Dowland’s songs justifies their appearance on any kind of respectable program, which this actually was. The earthiness of Sting’s delivery had its own appeal, so long as you didn’t think about Alfred Deller or the Hilliards. The songs included one by the Renaissance’s Robert Johnson and another by the one from our own time, which was cute.