Every year around this time, the excellent local ensemble called the Armadillo String Quartet puts on a concert of
music by its anointed composer-in-nonresidence, Peter Schickele. Peter comes out from New York for the concert; sometimes — as a pretty good pianist — he mixes in with the string players, and he also delivers program notes before each piece that mainly tell us, as if we needed telling, that making up musical ideas and setting them down on paper is the world’s most enjoyable practice, bar none.
Schickele, I also don’t need to tell you, has gone through much of his life as an alter ego named P.D.Q. Bach. In that disguise he has created a wonderful repertory (much of it now recorded on TelArc) of musical spoofs both wise and hilarious, the kind of gloss on the works of the Great Masters that can only make sense after you’ve thoroughly absorbed the original targets of these manic rewrites. To fashion such latter-day masterworks as the 1712 Overture or the too-true-to-be-good Philip Glass takeoff called Einstein on the Fritz demands more than merely the ability to look funny onstage; it demands knowledge. Like other advocates of the proposition that the way to make music ridiculous is to tell the truth about it — Anna Russell and Gerald Hoffnung, but not the glib, patronizing Victor Borge — P.D.Q.’s music constitutes both a parody and a celebration. He claims to have retired his doppelgänger from the touring circuit in favor of increased activity as a “serious” composer; don’t be too sure.
Last week’s concert, in the exceptionally pleasant setting of Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church, suggested that the separation between the halves of Schickele’s musical persona is not as complete as he would have us think. The program consisted of chamber works and four-hand piano music, including a brand-new String Quintet: music serious in intent and immensely charming in performance. Schickele’s music falls under the rubric of conservatism; sometimes it turns rather lavender and sets out to rephrase Gabriel Fauré. He thinks in tonalities and is unafraid of diatonic triads. Conservative, radical: This business of categories doesn’t mean very much, actually. I would rather be serenaded by the soft accents of a Peter Schickele quartet, even when it’s full of other people’s music, than be pulverized under the intellectualized grindings of an Elliott Carter. A composer’s choice of tools is a lot less important than what he manages to build with them.
P.D.Q. Bach helps with the building, deny his presence as Schickele might. A set of piano duets called Little Mushrooms (from the nickname given to Franz Schubert by his Viennese friends) turned out to be an uncanny simulacrum of Schubert’s breathtaking harmonic adventures and gift for melody floating unfettered. Maybe Mushrooms is more serious in tone than the P.D.Q. repertory, but it gives off the same sense of rip-off-as-love-letter. The new quintet, at 35 minutes one of the more substantial of Schickele’s chamber works, is full of endearing, romantic sounds; you realize shortly into the work that these are not all that far removed from the sounds that make Mozart’s string quintets the masterworks they are.
I cannot predict that any of Schickele’s music, from either half of his brain, will be around and admired in, say, 2098; I know that two hours of it came together last week to form a modestly challenging, eminently satisfying, feel-good sort of concert. We could use more of same. The Armadillos — Barry Socher, Steven Scharf, Raymond Tischer and Armen Ksajikian — delivered with love of music and pride of ownership; Schickele and Bryan Pezzone played the Mushrooms; violist Roland Kato and clarinetist Ralph Williams were also on hand, and a good time was had, I think, by all.
Slowly, the management of the Getty Center moves toward a resumption of concert activities; a representative told me last week that they’re “in the works.” It won’t be easy, perhaps, to match the euphoric setting of the old summer concerts in the handsome, intimate Inner Peristyle Garden in Malibu, but life moves on, and last Friday’s sunset from Mr. Getty’s new parapet was worth fighting crowds and traffic. The occasion was the concert by House Blend, a newly formed and newly named chamber ensemble of old friends: pianists Gloria Cheng-Cochran and Grant Gershon, violinist Elizabeth Baker and soprano Elissa Johnston. Getty’s indoor auditorium is a functional, comfortable room seating 450, which is the right size; it’s dry to the ear and boring to the eye in, alas, the tradition of performing spaces in museums.
The House Blenders’ program offered a nice assortment of novelties: Colin MacPhee’s remarkably effective transcriptions for two pianos of Balinese gamelan music; Messiaen’s early, Debussy-tinged La Mort du Nombre, the evening’s one work involving all four performers, with Gershon transformed for the moment into a reedy but accurate tenor; new songs by local Donalds Crockett and Davis and by New York’s Aaron Kernis; and Hallelujah Junction, a bouncy new work for two pianos by John Adams, full of amusing rhythmic dead ends, maybe a little long for its 15-minute length. The music I took home in my head was “Morning Innocents,” one of Kernis’ Songs of Innocents, a line of vocal melody poignant and truly beautiful.
In December 1996 I returned from a trip to Germany singing the praises of
a young composer named Hanna Kulenty (b. 1961), Polish-born and living in the Netherlands, where she has studied contemporary techniques at the knee of the genial terrorist Louis Andriessen. I had seen Kulenty’s chamber opera Mother of Black-Winged Dreams in Munich, and found it brave and resourceful. Kulenty was at USC last Saturday, participating in panels organized by the school’s Polish Music Reference Center on what it means to be a Polish composer and what it means to be a woman composer. At night, before a paltry audience at Hancock Hall, three chamber works by Kulenty were performed; one, A Sixth Circle for trumpet and piano, had its world premiere.
I will continue to sing her praises. What I have heard of Kulenty tells me of a headstrong experimenter with some powerful ideas about pounding on and rewarding a hearer’s senses. Best of all on Saturday night — on first hearing, anyway — was the new trumpet piece, running about 10 minutes, setting a strong and shapely lyric line (plus a lot of sonic tricks) for Tal Bar-Niv’s trumpet against a breathless perpetuum mobile from Sergei Silvansky’s piano. Nothing of Kulenty’s is listed in the current Schwann; there are recordings avail-
able abroad, including her Second Piano
Concerto, a knockout piece. Tell me about there not being any new composers.