Art Thou Not Kent?

In Munich one week last month, Kent Nagano conducted three operas on that many nights. Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland in Achim Freyer’s staging was as delightful the second time around as when I’d seen it last summer. Tristan und Isolde began with Isolde on a modern yacht and ended with the lovers, alive and holding hands, witnessing their own deaths. In Eugen Onegin, the antagonists Onegin and Lenski arose for their duel from the same bed, and the Polonaise was danced by cowboys stripped nearly down to the altogether. Never have I heard a house erupt so vociferously in unanimous boos

Nagano looms large in Munich, and intercontinentally as well. His realm embraces much of the city’s orchestral life, as well as the superlative ensemble that fills the pit at the State Opera every night. He spoke with affection and amusement about a flourishing gathering called “Attacca,” whose members play regularly and seriously, but cling proudly to their amateur status, and play strictly for the experience of sharpening their perceptions so as to get more out of concertgoing. Nagano spoke with particular paternal pride of the Jünge Deutsche Philharmonie, the youth-orchestra model toward which all this current talk here at home — inspired in part by the recent visit of Gustavo Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra — is hopefully directed.

One immediate project has been to form an “Akademie” made up of a mix of Philharmonie members and young players from Nagano’s Berkeley Symphony, which he has led since 1978 and has always used as a kind of laboratory. A particular goal for the Akademie is to break through all the fuss about the necessity of using authentic “period” instruments in performing old music and seek ways of honoring the expressive values in Bach and his contemporaries with contemporary performance techniques on brand-new violins and flutes. Their first concert, in fact, took place this week in Berkeley, an exploration of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos; the next “Akademie” in Berkeley is set for January 31.

More good news: Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto, which Nagano, his Berkeley Symphony and violinist Viviane Hagner introduced in the Bay Area a couple of years ago to great acclaim (including mine), will soon be recorded by ECM — same conductor and soloist — along with a new orchestral work by Chin that Nagano has commissioned.

The “Emperor” Unclad

During my visit to Munich, the new Jewish Culture Center was the scene of performances of The Emperor of Atlantis, the brief satirical opera composed by Viktor Ullmann in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, smuggled out by a friend after the composer’s death, now in worldwide circulation as a precious relic. The performance, co-sponsored by the Bavarian State Opera, was a further landmark in the warming of relations between the city’s Jewish community and the state-run culture machine, publicized, of course, up the bazooty. As was usually the case, the air at the performance — and later, the press — resounded with words like “masterpiece.” Many wept, as if the Wailing Wall had hove into view. One exception was the dour-faced critic of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Egbert Tholl, who proclaimed, “Falsche Scheu,” in very large type: “False piety,” and I think it was about time these words appeared.

Ullmann was a respected composer, born in what is now the Czech Republic. At Ojai a couple of years ago, Marino Formenti played one of his big, impressive piano sonatas. His short opera The Broken Jug is scheduled for four performances by the L.A. Opera in February as part of music director James Conlon’s passion to restore Nazi-banned repertory. That work is a polished comedy by an accomplished young composer full of between-wars musical influences; its fate was that of any work by a Jewish composer after 1938. Ullmann was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942 and continued to compose, subject to the complications of his new restricted life.

The chamber and piano works from Ullmann’s camp days continue to show the eclectic eloquence of his prewar music, but Atlantis is a poor work, a pastiche of secondhand Hindemith and Weill. Its circulation since its Amsterdam premiere in 1975, the reactions it naturally stirs up around the facts of its existence, and the newsworthiness of its performances have indeed created this aura of false piety, through which the true qualities of Viktor Ullmann are ever more dimly visible. I cannot escape the impression of a work written in haste, perhaps even in desperation, drawing on familiar satirical clichés in a struggle to get the work out to the world as the clock ticks away. A creditable performance in Munich, under Bavarian State Opera auspices, on premises a stone’s throw from Mr. Hitler’s own favorite Gärtnerplatz-Theater, and with a college-age orchestra led by a smart director named Daniel Grossmann, still did not advance its cause.

On Other Shores

The cover photo for the San Francisco Opera’s The Rake’s Progress — the late James Dean in his convertible, nuzzling his horse (or hoss) out on the desert — led me to expect the worst, but that scene had apparently been dropped before I got to town. Aside from a delightfully tricky swimming pool devised by Cirque du Soleil director Robert Lepage, into which people seemed able to dive and then disappear, little went on that might have flapped the easily flappable Igor Stravinsky.

It was a lovely, straight performance under San Francisco’s soon-to-depart music director Donald Runnicles, sweetly sung by William Burden and Laura Aikin as the lovebirds, darkly done by James Morris as Nick Shadow, and carried to a hilarious turn by Denyce Graves as the bearded Baba the Turk. Carl Fillion’s stage set could not erase memories of David Hockney’s magical sets and costumes the last time around in San Francisco; nothing could. At least there was no horse.

Back home, I rack my brain and my far-flung gray cells to locate a memory of music uglier in overall sound, more exasperating in its inability to resolve its stated premise or reach its proposed point, more singularly inept in the mere housekeeping of its orchestral sounds such that inner orchestral voices become audible one from another, than the Domestic Symphony of Richard Strauss that befouled the air of Disney Hall last Thursday. Some of the fault may be laid to Zubin Mehta, who as usual approached the podium as though awakened from a bad dream, but I defy anyone, from Salonen on down, to turn that ghastly farrago into music. Following the Dvorák Cello Concerto, wondrously played by Johannes Moser, did not, of course, help.

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