In Glendale’s Alex Theater on a Saturday night in late September, the voice of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson soared upward on a jagged trajectory laid down by Johann Sebastian Bach. “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut,” she sang, and the heart’s blood of an adoring capacity audience throbbed in concordance. Bach’s symbol-laden cantata texts demand a certain forbearance from today’s listeners, but the passionate groveling of his repentant sinner took place beyond the power of words in the fire-scorched dark hues of his recitative and in the incandescence of the singer who gave them shape on this occasion — the season’s opening concert by Jeffrey Kahane’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Hunt Lieberson is our sovereign singer — for the mahogany-rich seamlessness of her voice, the intelligence in her use of it over a remarkably wide repertory. I heard her on that occasion on my first night out after spinal surgery, but that is only part of the reason she heads my list of last year’s fondest memories. Fortunately, I have her Nonesuch disc of the same Bach cantata (one of two, actually), so I can relive the miracle of that night even with my own scars practically healed.
Earlier last year she had also sung — with comparably heated powers of communication — in the Philharmonic’s production of John Adams’ El Niño. The work’s imperfections lay more in Peter Sellars’ cluttered visuals than in Adams’ music, whose moments of affecting simplicity I found greatly touching. Adams’ year has been rich beyond measure: El Niño and two major new works, the 9/11-inspired On the Transmigration of Souls (botched, alas, in its Orange County premiere) and the Disney Hall dedicatory The Dharma at Big Sur. Neither score is top-drawer Adams, but both are infused with the parlay of enormous skill and urgency that has made it possible to welcome in Adams the presence of a composer seriously talented, with something on his mind and the skill to send it forth.
The best new music of the year — to these ears, anyway — was none of the above, however, nor is it as yet available. The name of Unsuk Chin gradually makes its way; her Violin Concerto was due for a hearing by Kent Nagano’s Berkeley Symphony but had to be canceled because of the illness of its soloist — Viviane Hagner, the sole master (so far) of its excruciating demands. Meanwhile, the work has gone on to win the University of Louisville’s $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, and a disc of a performance from the Berlin premiere (also with Nagano) has fallen into a few fortunate hands. It is a work of dazzling power, a startling mix of angry, almost brutal rhetoric and elegant, lyric humor. Its composer, 42 years old, born in Korea, will be at Ojai this summer — not with the Violin Concerto but with a new work — and word circulates of a commission from the Los Angeles Opera for 2005.
The best sound of the year — I report with relief shared by, I am sure, millions — came first with the burnished clarity of the intertwined winds at the start of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, followed soon after by the centuries-deep resonance of the bass drum, all of these sounds new and unheard in the Philharmonic’s previous excursions through this score. Yes, there are glitches in certain aspects of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, as it amused me to list in this space a couple of weeks ago; some are reparable with Band-Aids applied to the hall, others with Band-Aids applied to audience behavior. None of these stands in any way in opposition to the overall sight and sound of our new hall, a gigantic step forward in the annals of serious-music consumership.
William Bolcom’s enormous setting (choruses, orchestras and combos, varied soloists) of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience was completed in 1981 and has taken this long to reach our shores. It did so earlier last year, in a distinguished performance by Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony, with auxiliary forces that included Bolcom’s wife, the wonderful song stylist Joan Morris. As in the poetry itself, not everything works in Bolcom’s three-hour score; what does work — the ferocious, bone-chilling setting of “Tyger, tyger burning bright” for one — is great, imaginative, American music making. Why is there no recording?
Another mixed grill, and a delightful one, marked Michael Milenski’s farewell to the Long Beach Opera he had launched 25 years ago. This was a set of seven tiny operas — ranging from Darius Milhaud’s delectable Opéras-Minutes, teensy satires of Greek myths, all the way back to a Monteverdi cycle on Death. As usual at Long Beach, it added up to an afternoon of expectations tickled, fulfilled and thwarted, diverting at every turn. Michael’s successor, Andreas Mitisek, has already proved himself as a conductor with the company; filling Milenski’s boots, however, will leave him with — oops! — his hands full.
To sample the joys of vivid imagination, we look to the Long Beach Opera, to the members of the California EAR Unit, and to the concerts scattered hither and yon (but never yawn) in MaryAnn Bonino’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites. The latter two met enchantingly one Sunday afternoon, in the old freight yard now occupied by SCI-Arc, the forward-looking architecture school, whose premises were filled that day with a nostalgic event by the EAR people — nostalgia in this case being a program carved out of the dust of the 1970s with, as a typical madcap touch, printed programs distributed as paper airplanes.
To LACMA came music making of sterner stuff, three programs in January by Stuttgart’s Neue Vocalsolisten that included two chunks of dark and rarefied atmosphere from the recent past: Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung and the late Luciano Berio’s A-Ronne: music you had to take home and relive in a private room, music that explores the far reaches of the drama inherent within (and even behind) the spoken word. From Stuttgart also came the mysterious and disturbing stage magician Achim Freyer, whose previous L.A. Opera stint had been a destruction of Bach’s B-minor Mass, but who then atoned last September with a season-opening Damnation of Faust that bespangled Berlioz’s flamboyant oratorio with lights, shadows and a torrent of theatrical brilliance that accorded note for note with the tortured genius of the work itself. That one company could, as successive offerings, put forth the genius of this theatrical mastery and the abject nonentity of the misconceived Nicholas and Alexandra — well, there’s the miracle of opera for you.