Photo by Ken HowardLAST WEEK'S VISIT BY THE ENSEMBLE Intercontemporain delivered exhilaration and bafflement in equal measure; I don't think I was the only member of the commendably large crowd at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall to leave the concert wondering what had hit me and where. The playing, by the Paris-based ensemble under the splendid leadership of Santa Monica's own David Robertson, was extraordinary: every note shaped with lapidary precision, textures balanced and shaped like crystal gleaned from some outer galaxy. Even with an American conductor, and a program including music by an American and a Korean composer, it was all very — how you say — French.
Yes, bafflement. From the program notes I learned that Philippe Hurel's Six Miniatures en Trompe-l'oeil contained “rhythmic units [with] precise functions, certain of them being sufficiently heterogeneous in and of themselves to be able to be distinguished and nevertheless sufficiently similar to be intermingled.” About Unsuk Chin's Xi, the annotator informed the eager crowd that “there is a continuous metamorphosis of a certain number of generating cells . . . that remain, however, as unrecognizable as a single atom on the skin of a human being.” What I heard in these works was none of the above: in the Hurel, a clinkety-clank of successive sonorities, intricately shaded and including microtones; in the Unsuk Chin, more of the same but now spread through the hall via an elaborate surround-sound setup. Cast adrift by all that informational overload, could anyone in the audience claim to have experienced the music at all?
Fortunately (for a few of us, at any rate), Robertson and the EIC returned to UCLA the next morning for a two-hour seminar devoted to Hurel, demonstrating the composer's use of computer technology to explore the harmonic implications of certain notes and their power to generate other notes, along with demonstrations of the heroism involved in playing hard new music. That afternoon, the group went up to CalArts and performed a similar anatomy lesson on another work on the program, the two parts of Pierre Boulez's Dérive. Anyone lucky enough to attend the sessions certainly came away feeling a lot closer to these works, and to the creative processes behind the glacial, intricate note spinning that we think of as intrinsically French (but which also embraces Elliott Carter, whose recent Clarinet Concerto fit neatly into last week's program).
But that only accounts for a few dozen enlightened souls, among the millions that the composers Hurel, Boulez, Chin and Carter surely hope will hear their music. The matter here is broader than just the activities of the 23-year-old EIC (which include performances so far of some 1,600 works); it touches on the whole interaction of music and audience, sense and sensitivity. I posed the problem to Robertson at one of the seminars, and his answer was intelligent if narrow: The EIC exists ideally to play its difficult repertory over and over, until people begin to catch an inkling of what the composers want to say — and can then accept or reject on the music's own terms. (EIC's Deutsche Grammophon recording of Boulez's Répons, tingling, space-filling music that the Ensemble played here on a UCLA basketball court in 1986, is fresh at hand.)
Some music asks to be loved: the “Crucifixus” from Bach's B-minor Mass, Don Giovanni, Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet, maybe a few thousand others. The music at the EIC concert made no such demand. It asked instead for admiration for the precision of wheels going around. Fine and dandy; I loved my Erector Set when I was a kid, and perhaps the exhilaration of last week's concert reached the same nerve centers.
THE PROPOSITION OFTEN ADVANCED, THAT Mozart's Don Giovanni is the greatest of all operas, will encounter no opposition from this corner. The further proposition, that the L.A. Opera has finally shaken itself awake in what has been a dismal season, with a performance fully worthy of the music at hand, seems almost too good to be true. But that, too, will encounter no opposition here, or from the large crowd that cheered this latest effort — surely as much with delight as relief — at the Music Center last Wednesday.
Karen Stone's staging of Jonathan Miller's production, premiered at the 1990 Florence May Festival and brought to Los Angeles a year later, digs deep into the roots that have made Mozart's 1787 masterpiece a fertile field for psychological interpreters. From Giovanni's first entrance, his clothes still askew after his thwarted rape of Donna Anna, to the love-crazed Elvira's constant tinkering with fetishes and mementos, to the peasant Zerlina placating her miffed suitor Masetto with sweet singing while also loosening his belt, the production gives off a full awareness that babies don't come from storks. The one flaw in the 1994 revival, the tendency to interrupt the music for long moments of pantomime, has been done away with this time around.
Mozart has always fared well at the L.A. Opera, the more so since the Italian conductor Evelino Pidò has come on the scene. (Then why is there no Mozart scheduled for next season?) Pidò's Don Giovanni rings true from first notes (those startling D-minor chords ringed in hellfire) to last (the little flick of orchestral stardust after affairs have been set right). His cast proves an altogether superior aggregation: Dwayne Croft's intense, insinuating Don; Richard Bernstein's savvy, sardonic Leporello; and the phenomenally vital singing of Jane Eaglen and Sally Wolf as the two heroines undone — probably past their powers of realization — by Don Giovanni's predations.
Robert Israel's sets did not accord with everyone's imagined Don Giovanni at the 1991 premiere: stark, massive, movable architectural units in pervading shades of gray. Duane Schuler's new lighting, with its startling shifts of shadow for the supernatural moments, is a considerable improvement, especially as it allows the characters, in Israel's nicely defined costume colors, to stand out against their background.
Above all, there was balance: the splendid equilibrium among the cast and between vocal ensemble and orchestra; the visual balance between what people looked like and what they were up to; the dramatic balance in this most challenging of all operas between searing personal torment and delicious period comedy. Balance, at the L.A. Opera, has been a rare commodity of late; without it, all the beautiful singing in the world won't bring Mozart to life. It was there this time, and the amazement was something you could almost reach out and touch.