Czech Mates

Finally, Jenufa; finally, Karita Mattila: Our opera company has never more brightly shone. Leos Janácek’s opera probes deeply into human agony before extracting its triumph. Its flow, past moments of unspeakable horror, seems to echo at all times that of the human heartbeat. Even its Czech language seems readily comprehensible; that is the earnestness of Janácek’s music. It is also, of course, the penetrating dramatic intensity of the cast at work at the Chandler Pavilion, led by Mattila — who is not Czech but Finnish and who is at every moment transformed by her role into an irresistible entity. In her ability to wrest forgiveness from cruelty, Janácek’s lyric mastery makes his Jenufa one of opera’s towering personages; the further wonder is the way Mattila inhabits that character so completely: her moment of near madness at the loss of her child, the profundity of her acceptance as she looks beyond the sins of the man who has loved yet wounded her. I rank her accomplishment among my most profound experiences from any stage: alongside Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde, Laurence Olivier’s Oedipus.

There is much of value, as well, from James Conlon’s musical direction, splendidly motivated and knowing. Long before the first notes sound, when most conductors might be vouchsafed a pre-downbeat martini or two, Conlon is already out front, chatting up the pre-performance crowd with his strong and valuable insights on the opera and its origins. Olivier Tambosi’s stage direction, previously seen at the Metropolitan Opera and on the DVD from the Liceu at Barcelona, is exactly right for this opera: long, austere lines of action, a stage largely open and uncluttered. (I could, however, learn to live without the large boulder that fills in most of the second-act space; it may have symbolic significance, but I found it blank and ugly.)

Eva Urbanová is the troubled stepmother, the Kostelnicka whose well-intentioned murder of Jenufa’s baby becomes the fulcrum of the unbearable human tragedy. Jorma Silvasti and Kim Begley are the brothers Steva and Laca, put on Earth to make life for Jenufa both complicated and interesting. Jenufa runs once more, this weekend; beg, borrow or steal your way in and share the pride in our opera company at its finest.

Gloria in Excelsis

Gloria Cheng finished her Piano Spheres concert last Tuesday with the piano smoldering on the Zipper Hall stage and the near-capacity audience in about the same state. Iannis Xenakis’ music will do that to you sometimes. His 1973 Evryali certainly did: a portrait of “the eldest of three hideous Gorgon sisters . . . with hands of brass, sharp fangs . . .” Cheng’s program was, as usual, a fascinating tour around the sphere of today’s pianistic possibilities: from the trickery of Helmut Lachenmann’s anti-musical Guero — in which the performer extracts dry-point clicks and clacks by attacking the keyboard with a credit card (Amoco or Mobil, we were informed) — to the visionary quietude of a Takemitsu Litany and an exotic jungle fantasy by a young Messiaen. Of lesser interest was a brand-new, bone-dry sonata by UCLA grad student Dante de Silva, still in the academy in more ways than one.

That sorry venture was nicely balanced, however, by an elder, wiser one by John Cage, whose 55-year-old Water Music got the proceedings back on track. “Water,” as you might guess, actually consisted of a bowl of the stuff, plus some whistles, a radio, a pack of cards and some gadgetry for “preparing” the piano; all thoughts of Mr. de Silva’s run-of-the-mill formalities were nicely demolished, as our Gloria neatly restored the Piano Sphere to its proper dimension. A couple of knockout works by Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter filled out the program. Piano Spheres, one of our most cherishable concert enterprises, is again in orbit.

All in the Family

For four years now, there has been an annual bash in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. The Carlsbad Music Festival, organized by native-son composer Matt McBane, this year ran for a weekend in an auditorium in the town library, drew large and happy crowds. Three ensembles performed: So Percussion, Real Quiet and the Calder Quartet. All the music was by Americans, mostly young, all young at heart: Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, David Lang, Phil Kline and, of course, Matt McBane. The Monday before, there had been a preview concert at Zipper Hall at which all three ensembles performed. In Carlsbad, Matt’s sister sold tickets and discs; his dad ran the spotlights and mikes.

Aside from that family aspect of the festival, you had to admire the notion of a young composer taking upon himself the task of getting his music heard, and the music of people around him. So Percussion and Real Quiet are upcoming ensembles making their way, via small record labels. The Calders have pushed into more established territory, but they also came to Carlsbad to play Terry Riley’s music (which I had to miss for time pressures). I particularly liked Real Quiet — cello, piano and percussion — which must, of course, create its own repertory. The sense at Carlsbad, therefore, was of a festival of people involved with inventing music, not just playing standard stuff. The other good thing was that the audience, of native Carlsbaddies, were listening to all this new music without worrying about its newness or oldness or familiarity. I liked that.

Oh, and by the Way

The Salonen contingent was back at midweek; if there is a more thrilling resonance than the sound of the Philharmonic playing Berlioz in Disney Hall, it remains undiscovered. Two snippets from the Roméo et Juliette symphony served as wraparound for the opening-night gala, with Renée Fleming to sing Ravel and Puccini as the luscious middle. Also tucked into that half-length program: a curious Luciano Berio reworking of a Boccherini (!) martial fantasy, insubstantial but delightful.

Oddly enough, another Berio reworking, this time of the final, unfinished Contrapunctus of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, began the next night’s first subscription program, an interesting setting for winds and brass ending with a dissonance of Berio’s fashioning. Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen followed, solemn, dark and resigned music from the end of a sorrowing composer’s life, perhaps somewhat out of place as a season’s opening music. Even so, the meathead in the audience who tried to end it with premature applause — twice — strengthens my hopes that someday there will be IQ testers at the doorways of concert halls. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony glisteningly performed, outstanding among feel-good symphonies, ended the evening properly.

LA Weekly