Before There Was Ambien

The air was full of memories at the season finale of the “Piano Spheres” concerts last week; the music was too. Ursula Oppens was the pianist — “Oyssla,” as Morty Feldman always called her in his high Brooklynese — and everything on her program was also by one or another of her (or our) old friends: Charlie Wuorinen, who loved to shake things up in New York academe; Bill Bolcom, ragtimer one time and tragedian the next time around; and, to cap it all, the quizzical-empirical Elliott Carter. Ursula was one of the four genius pianists who had prevailed upon Carter to create what has to be the most challenging piece of keyboard music of the past century — perhaps of all centuries. Twenty-eight years later, Carter’s Night Fantasies remains fascinatingly inexplicable; four magnificent performances by the commissioning artists (Oppens, Charles Rosen, Gil Kalish and the late Paul Jacobs) have scaled its crags, and so have others. Each attempt fulfills its 25 or so minutes of tremendously full, eager, important piano figuration differently; each fulfills the composer’s visions of “fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night”; each leaves one with another shading of the sense that thinking of the deepest, most sublime order has taken place.

Why ask for more? This is the one music by Carter that most moves me with the sense of a noble, creative mind at work. If some of his other music doesn’t do this — let me leave it at this, then. Ursula filled the Zipper Auditorium the other night with astonishing unwindings. Afterward, there was another Carter, more easily likable, Caténaires (Chains), pure trickery, a fast one-line piece with no chords, just a chain of notes, amusing and delightful. The shock of being amused by Carter was enough, I guess; I preferred the astonishment, this time, of the longer work. Garrulous Wuorinen, ponderous Bolcom and a couple of Joan Tower trivialities — nothing else remains from this remarkable concert that so challenges the memory of this one sovereign work.


Light and Dark Fantastic

There was music by Beethoven a night later, handsomely dispatched by András Schiff in the second grouping of his ongoing encounter with the “32”: a cluster of “early-middle” sonatas — Opp. 26, 27, 28 — from the time of the first couple of symphonies. The three sonatas of Opus 26 and 27 are all “irregular” in structure: the first with its Funeral March serving as the slow movement (a what-if sketch for the “Eroica”), the Opus 27 pair with their “Quasi una Fantasia” notation. If anything, the Opus 27 No. 1 is strangest of the group, with its opening movement, which keeps breaking off. Clearly, Beethoven was having some kind of high time playing with sonata structures, in no hurry to come to grips with the tread of history. There’s a splendid, if apocryphal, scene in the old Abel Gance Beethoven movie: Jilted one more time, the composer (the great Harry Baur) sneaks into the organ loft while his sweetie is being married to someone else, and hammers out the Funeral March from Opus 26.

There is something deliciously wayward about Beethoven’s state of mind at this time in his life. These “Fantasia” sonatas, even including the much-overprized “Moonlight,” have about them the sense of a carefree young experimenter in a lab. The specter of deafness hasn’t yet taken hold; the E-flat “Fantasia” Sonata, the sonata paired with the “Moonlight,” is a wild and wonderful work, musically all over the place, as though Beethoven had spilled all its pieces and is in no hurry to reassemble them. The closing theme is like one continuous chuckle.

For no reason I can easily pinpoint, I found these performances — the charm of the “Fantasia” works and, above all, the relaxation of the “Pastoral” Opus 28 — the most satisfactory of Schiff’s performances so far. Listening to early Beethoven sonatas in concentrated doses demands a certain amount of bucolic exercise, and it has, I admit, taken a while to bring this valuable series into focus.

“On the Edge of Santa Monica” and just plain on the edge: If ever a musical event fit that description, last weekend’s “Jacaranda” get-together surely did. Iannis Xenakis’ Nomos Alpha began it: Tim Loo’s solo cello howling helplessly into dark corners, beyond definition or resolution, music so beyond human management that a second solo cello must needs be called upon to untangle its principal in its final few measures. It was no disgrace for Loo to enlist Erika Duke in this manner; the madness lay in the overly great expectations by Xenakis himself in projecting such intense but unperformable music. The intensity of the music would have justified the participation of a half-dozen cellists, if necessary. Not much of Xenakis’ music invokes the sense of magic; this did. So, of course, did the evening’s final work, Stimmung, of which I have written often and with delight. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “hippie campfire” (love that!) for voices intoning magic names ended the evening even more mysteriously, gloriously, on a heavenly set capped with a Sirius mockup and six singers robed in angelic white. You had to have been there.

Obiter dictum: “Night Music” goes dark next week after 16 years. I will write about the last of this year’s Monday Evening Concerts, which I helped to save a couple of years ago as part of my job. The decision to close down my column was not mine. The notes of protest have, of course, been wonderful; they come because we all realize that music — all music but especially the endangered kind — needs people to speak for it, certainly more than one voice per community. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to write about music — periodically for the Weekly, and regularly in a blog ( that friends are setting up, for KUSC (which was on the phone first thing), wherever. My first print was in 1944; I’m not gonna stop now.

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