You could write a history of musical consumerism around the varied positions that Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion has held on the scene in the quarter-millennium of its existence. You start with the century of neglect, then the rediscovery and reconstruction in the squishy harmonies to endow the work with proper Victorian manners. Then came the further inflation to college-glee-club proportions, then the purification back to the ”what the composer might have heard“ proportions in the 1950s’ ”authenticity“ groundswell. These many sizes are all — or at least once were — available on recordings. In my days as a schoolboy collector, the one available St. Matthew seemed to suffice, the glee-club-size English-language mayhem wrought by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony on 27 — count ‘em — 78-rpm discs. Now, in this era of ludicrous overabundance, I’ve received three new versions just in the last few months.
One of these is by Helmuth Rilling, who as head of the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart is overseeing the complete 172-disc Bach project on Hanssler and who conducted the work with the Philharmonic and assembled vocal forces here last week. I am one of Rilling‘s staunch admirers — defenders, even, when necessary — whose praises I have often sung after performances here and at the Oregon Bach Festival. I would describe his Bach as middle-of-the-road modern. His forces at the Music Center were larger than the authenticity nuts might countenance: the 75 or so members of the USC Thornton Choral Artists plus the 29 boys and (horror!) girls of the Paulist Choristers of California; the Philharmonic players in similar numbers. He did not hesitate to add an occasional expressive ritard at the end of arias and chorales. Matthias Goerne, who delivered the words of Jesus, was allowed enough vibrato to transmute his singing into pure heartbreak. So was the orchestra’s concertmaster, Martin Chalifour, whose solo violin around Ingeborg Danz‘s ”Erbarme dich“ haunts me still. So was the tenor Christopher Cock, a last-minute replacement, who sang the narration as a disembodied onlooking angel — inauthentically, perhaps, but to extraordinary effect.
Even within the secular confines of Mrs. Chandler’s Pavilion, with the outside bustle clearly audible and the extra music from the disc peddlers during intermission — am I the only one who finds this an intrusion? — the work made its impact, the Hand of God in every glorious detail.
In one of those coincidences that keep the planning of this column from ever turning routine, there were other forces at work at USC last week to provide other music that told a similar story and with similar impact. Francis Poulenc‘s Dialogues of the Carmelites retells the Passion and Crucifixion in another but comparable setting: the murder by guillotine of Carmelite nuns clinging to their faith during France’s Reign of Terror. Poulenc‘s opera, which dates from the 1950s, is quiet on its surface but turbulent within, its disturbance captured in the swirl of half-tinted harmonies.
It was an act of bravery for USC’s Thornton Opera Workshop to take on this work — not for the first time, by the way. Timothy Lindberg‘s not-bad orchestra fared reasonably well with Poulenc’s pastels; Nicola Bowie‘s directorial hand moved the action convincingly, and there were a few voices that I will gladly hear again when some more seasoning has set in. The only thing wrong, in fact, was the English translation, which was extremely wrong. It is by the late Joseph Machlis, author of the most condescending — and most lucrative — of all college music-appreciation texts, who also headed a one-man translation factory capable of transforming librettos in any foreign language into verbal fudge. And so the subtle glints of Georges Bernanos’ French words were turned lumpy and percussive in the thudding of Machlis‘ consonants, and by that margin of error it would have been better if USC’s efforts simply hadn‘t taken place.
Late last month, yet another student ensemble from USC, led by the fearless Donald Crockett, had taken over one of the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concerts, in a program of important and difficult music by Louis Andriessen and Morton Feldman. Both the Times‘ Mark Swed and I praised the enterprise but suggested — each of us in a single, somewhat wistful sentence — that the young performing forces may have been in over their collective heads.
Ka-booom! A week later the Times published a fulminating response to Swed’s review by Stephen Hartke, a composer on the USC faculty who has also worked for the Philharmonic as a pre-concert lecturer and program annotator, and who had at this very concert taken credit for its planning. Unearthing just about every cliche in the eternal cat-vs.-dog between the creative and the critical community, and shooting himself in the foot at every turn, Hartke proclaimed that musicians and critics ”view each other with morbid fascination.“ Criticism is ”forever earthbound, mired in the banal necessity of making the nonverbal verbal.“ Swed‘s single sentence becomes a copious flow of venom, directed at a ”rare and stunning performance that a large and diverse audience had responded to with prolonged enthusiasm.“
Aside from several layers of conflict of interest involved — Hartke does, after all, glean a few bucks from the Philharmonic in the banal process of making the nonverbal verbal — he glides rather glibly over the fact that, sure, the cheers rang out in Zipper Hall that night, from a clearly partisan audience of USC classmates. The worst aspect of Hartke’s blatantly self-serving letter, in fact, is its subtext: the factionalism that instills deep divisions with-in the new-music scene. The USC crowd hangs together and yells its collective self hoarse at each other‘s accomplishments; so does the UCLA crowd; so does the CalArts crowd; they travel with their own cheering sections. (Last week’s EAR Unit concert came well-equipped with CalArts cheerleaders, but I looked in vain for faculty members from other schools, even though USC‘s Crockett was among the performers.) The Los Angeles area is one of the most active new-music venues in the country, and every event should ideally nourish and stimulate the entire community. Actions like Stephen Hartke’s preposterous letter can only slow the process.
And by the way, I make the necessity of making the nonverbal verbal my most rewarding challenge — and not a bit banal.