The Last Romantic

Betty Freeman

Composer Helmut Lachenmann

Helmut Lachenmann cuts a solitary figure in today’s musical world. At a time when much of the talk centers on accessibility, on a generation of composer-heroes — Adams, Adès, Reich, Saariaho, Salonen, just for starters — who have found ways to reach out to audiences with serious and imaginative creativity, that old notion of the composer on his private Olympus, proudly and defiantly cloaked in his mantle of inscrutability, rests almost solely with this tall, gaunt yet smiling German gent whose music ground its way through Zipper Concert Hall last Monday. This was the last, and most off-the-wall, of this season’s Monday Evening Concerts, the venerable series rescued and restored to its historic position as one of music’s most adventurous programming enterprises anywhere in the land.

Monday evening’s program began with Lachenmann himself, at the piano in a suite of Ein Kinderspiel (Child’s Play), nicely set with keys of the upper and lower octaves silently depressed so as to enhance the piano’s resonance. Okay so far? Came then Movement (—Before Paralysis), sizable music for 18 players, screeching out in all directions with jagged, dark, mysterious and inchoate patterns that defied connections (or welcomed disconnections?). This, we are told, is Lachenmann’s delight. “He is the world’s greatest composer,” proclaim a few holdouts in the new-music community who dote on inscrutability. At them in response, I fling my favorite James Thurber line: “ ‘He’s God!’ screamed a Plymouth Rock hen.”

Yet the concert drew a large crowd, and there were many who stood and cheered at the end. I would love to know what they heard. Prior to this concert, I knew Lachenmann mostly from the ECM recording of his setting — “opera” in the broadest sense — of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Match Girl,” onto which he has hung the whole paraphernalia of his “fractured aesthetic” (Alex Ross’ term), culminating in a horrendous musical mishmash in which the ghosts of every composer in Lachenmann’s own scrapbook, Mahler, Berg, Stockhausen, Boulez, pass by simultaneously as if in some horrendous wet dream. Does that lovely, sad Andersen story deserve that? Do we? Did we on Monday?

I had never before endured pain at a Monday Evening Concert; this time I did: pain and anger. A splendid young group, the Argento Chamber Ensemble, under Michel Galante, traveled with Lachenmann to perform the Movement; another, consisting of three members of Ensemble Recherche, played his Allegro Sostenuto (more of the same) after intermission. “Played,” by the way, often consisted of blowing through only the mouthpiece of a wind instrument, banging on the case of a piano, delivering frenzied blasts through a brass instrument and otherwise violating the customary sound possibilities of various instruments. Such procedures are not new, and they have a certain joke value the first time around. The Lachenmann works were long enough to allow these things to happen several times, and you all know what happens to a joke when you tell it more than once.

Beethoven, Bloomberg, Blog

Some of the happiest moments in a critic’s life come with discovering music you should have known long ago but didn’t. At Midori’s recital in Disney Hall, a week ago Sunday, there was a Beethoven Violin Sonata — A major, Opus 30 No. 1 — that I swear I had never heard before, or at least never paid attention. It had an ordinary, perky first movement. Then came an adagio straight out of heaven: a melting, embracing slow theme and a middle section that stood on a threshold and welcomed me with one arm and Franz Schubert with the other. Oh my, Midori plays wonderfully these days; so does Robert McDonald, her excellent collaborating pianist. A couple of weeks before, I had heard her in an unpublicized USC concert, before a paltry audience, performing a big, dramatic Penderecki sonata from 1999, very long and very intense; that work deserves to be brought out in a public performance now that she is located in Los Angeles and draws big crowds — as she did last week. I had gone to her Disney Hall concert out of curiosity for John Corigliano’s Sonata, but that turned out to be an early work, highfalutin Americana, not worth the carfare. It was Beethoven who made the evening.

Beethoven was my first love — the “Pastoral” Symphony, or what remained of it in Walt Disney’s Fantasia butchery. The Eighth Symphony figured in my first published review: Boston Herald, Thanksgiving Day, 1944, a Boston Symphony Youth Concert — and on that day, I abandoned my premed ambitions forthwith, breaking my mother’s heart, for a couple of years anyhow. (It was repaired when I introduced her to Leonard Bernstein.) Sue Cummings hired me as music critic for the Weekly in March 1992, and I got a nice note from her this week on the occasion of this, my final column. It was Cummings who thought up the title “A Lot of Night Music.” I wanted “A Little Night Music” in honor of two favorite composers (guess!), but I had no idea I’d be writing such a lot. Sixteen years! with the most cooperative local management and — honest! — the best readership any serious music critic could ever ask for. My lord! the outburst over my termination has been as gratifying as 10 Marriage of Figaro performances over a single weekend.

From this week, I’ll be writing regularly for My own blog,, will be starting up any day now; there’ll be announcements on KUSC and elsewhere. I’ll also be keeping one foot in the door here at the Weekly; in fact, I’ve already got an assignment.

So, you see, it’s not so bad.

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