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FOUR PLAY

A couple of Saturdays ago there was Mozart in Santa Monica, four
young string players astonished at the harmonic suspensions at the start of
the C-major Quartet (K. 465) and eager to share their discoveries with a pleased
audience. This came midway in one of the “Jacaranda Music” programs
at the First Presbyterian Church, all Mozart and all velvet, but this performance
— by the young quartet that calls itself Denali (after the native name for Alaska’s
mountain otherwise known as McKinley) — was the special delight. The next afternoon
there was another Mozart quartet, in Pasadena this time, when the venerable
and much-honored Guarneri played the B-flat (K. 589) at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium
— not this time, I’m sorry to say, with communicable astonishment, but merely
as the first number on the latest concert of their latest tour. The Jacaranda
concert, in the second year of this new series, which is quickly building a
happy audience of mixed young and old, drew about half a house; the Coleman
Concerts at Beckman, which play to a large codger contingent, had people begging
tickets at the door.

I found the Guarneri concert depressing on the whole, even the
concluding Ravel Quartet, which is so full of wonderful sounds that it usually
helps even tired musicians score points. The Guarneri’s publicity is full of
the wonderment of their having played together for the last 40-or-whatever years,
but that was what was wrong with their performances that day. I prefer the Denali’s
way of playing, edgy and full of shared surprise, and that of another excellent
upcoming new local quartet, the Calder — with the advantage of both groups’
young approach to music that was born young. The Denali returns to the Jacaranda
series on January 15, and its music this time will be the four string quartets
by Silvestre Revueltas: edgy, disorienting music by an ecstatic, inexplicable
genius.

Those last four adjectives also came to mind during the Arditti
Quartet’s playing at the County Museum a few nights later, along with “awesome”
and “inscrutable.” “Lovable,” however, did not. The Arditti’s
latest ballbreaker repertory over its illustrious 30 years — with personnel
changes but with first violinist Irvine Arditti the one constant — bristles
with questions posed but unanswered; the sheer, slick intensity of their playing
becomes an art form removed from matters of what it is they are trying to communicate.
Composers who feed this repertory have their own followings; Brian Ferneyhough,
whose Third Quartet constituted the thorny centerpiece of this last program,
is apparently some sort of paradigm. I, too, admire splendid machinery, but
seek musical gratifications elsewhere.

. . . with Yo-Yo and Mannie, for example. I don’t know how many
times Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax have played Beethoven’s cello sonatas, together
or with other partners; given the works’ standing in the repertory, I would
guess quite a few. Yet the sense of ho-hum-another-gig that spoiled the Guarneri’s
concert, or of wheels going around at the Arditti’s, was nowhere present at
this altogether superior meeting of the minds a few nights later at Royce. The
music made some difference, of course; three works from across the chronology
of Beethoven’s genius said three different and fascinating things about instrumental
discourse, culminating in the cat-and-mouse games in the finale of Opus 102,
No. 1, which these players made me understand fully for the first time in a
lifetime of puzzled listening.

AS TIME GOES BY

Our music has a remarkable past, which is gradually slipping away.
A look at the program assembled for the memorial for Leonard Stein, last Saturday
at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church, suggested the breadth of the musical world
that fell under Leonard’s purview during his time among us, which ended with
his death, at 87, last June. There was Arnold Schoenberg, of course, whom Stein
served as teaching assistant, editor and — through the Schoenberg Institute,
which he founded at USC — promulgator to the outside world. There were the other
members of the Los Angeles émigré colony — Berthold Viertel, for
example, whose poems Stein set to music. There was Charles Ives, whose music
came to Los Angeles via the “Evenings on the Roof” concerts starting
in 1939, which used Stein’s services as pianist, musical assistant, even page
turner.

The “Roof” concerts continue, of course, as the Monday
Evening Concerts at LACMA, and the “Piano Spheres” concerts, which
Stein co-founded with four of the area’s best pianists, seem to get better all
the time. (They began at the Neighborhood Church, but have moved on to Zipper
Hall.) All the founding “Spheres” pianists were on hand for the memorial
concert, in solos, duets and as accompanists to singers who were also part of
Stein’s history. Notable among these was Marni Nixon, who sang some of Schoenberg’s
delightful early songs (yes, delightful Schoenberg!): the same Marni who sang
Webern in the old Robert Craft album, who was the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn
in My Fair Lady . . . and is singing still. Mark Robson, whose recent
“Piano Spheres” concert was one of the liveliest and most enterprising
ever, was her pianist.

Gloria Cheng repeated Schoenberg’s lovely little Opus 19 pieces
she had played so luminously at a recent “Spheres” concert. Susan
Svrcek and Vicki Ray delivered a piano duet by Stein himself. The Harbisons,
Rosemary and John, came west to perform Schoenberg’s Fantasy for Violin and
Piano
; the Juilliard Quartet’s Joel Krosnick played Elliott Carter in A
Small Suite for Leonard
. It was an afternoon of discoveries and re-discoveries,
including a few cute, tiny pieces by Stein himself that he may or may not have
wanted unearthed. The program didn’t make up for the loss of Leonard Stein himself,
his gnarled figure booming out thoughts wise and cantankerous from the back
row of nearly every concert on the schedule, but it lit up vivid memories of
a lot of what he stood for.

Obiter dictum: The L.A. Opera fielded its B team as the
tragic lovers for its last three La Bohème performances — the
Alagnas, husband (tenor Roberto) and wife (soprano Angela Gheorghiu), noted
for their his-and-her romantic roles (including a well-praised film of Tosca)
and for a number of scars, now healed, from skirmishes with major operatic companies,
a press agent’s dream. On opening night, Gheorghiu sang like an angel, got the
biggest ovations, and drew the most copious tears in her death scene. Alagna
sang like what, alas, he seems doomed to remain: a tenor not quite first-class,
impressively loud but depressingly off-pitch, compensating with a repertory
of lurid gestures that are really unfortunate, since he isn’t so bad-looking,
piecing together a career in someone else’s shadow. How sad.

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