The Bullshit Factor

The elderly white-haired gentleman sat on the stage and smiled. “This is one of the world’s greatest composers,” said Steven Stucky by way of introducing his old teacher from Cornell University days. “He is the world’s greatest composer,” repeats KUSC’s Jim Svejda about his Czech mate, week after week, in a heartwarming litany. Now, at 85, Karel Husa himself had come to visit, to listen and smile some more at Music for Prague 1968, his best-known work, racking up 7,000 performances so far. Strange to relate, the Philharmonic had only gotten around to performing it last week, for the first time.

Strange? Strange that the most famous score by the world’s greatest composer — or so proclaimed — has taken nearly four decades to reach our local forces? That it has never been recorded by a major orchestra? Or on a major label? I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t very good.

The work was originally written for school band, with a lot of sharp licks that can lift a band into a fair imitation of seriousness. That, I suspect, accounts for a large part of the work’s circulation; large, meaty chunks of serious-pretending band music, especially with a deeply personal program attached, make for socko programming. Mr. Husa was born in Prague, studied here and there, settled permanently in the U.S. in 1954 and obtained U.S. citizenship four years later. Fourteen years later came the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Mr. Husa suddenly became, in press releases at least, a heroic exile — from the country he had willingly forsaken long before. He composed this half-hour of orchestral meandering with a meaningful title attached to ensure fame: patches of nontonality here to secure his place in his own century, big militant noises there to attempt a handshake with fellow sufferer Shostakovich, a Bartók rip-off (merely embarrassing), and, at the end, a Czech anthem and some bells to proclaim some semblance of nationality with every cliché well in place.

I extend my homage to Esa-Pekka Salonen, who extracted enough agreeable noise from the work to elicit the normal Los Angeles standing ovation. (Rude question, which I, at almost Husa’s age, feel entitled to ask: Were they standing out of obeisance to all this “greatest” hype, or for what they heard in the clogged, constipated music?) I find it curious how little of Husa’s music shows up across the orchestral landscape, in the U.S. or abroad. His fame is maintained by small pockets of dedicated enthusiasts — my colleague at KUSC, or another local spokesman, Byron Adams, author of the simpering Husa article in Grove’s Dictionary. I cannot question the authenticity of their devotion; I just wonder what in hell they hear.

Elsewhere on Thursday’s program, there was much to hear, much that gave pleasure; this was next-to-last in the remarkably rewarding “Shadow of Stalin” series, devoted this time to lives just east of the Iron Curtain. First came György Ligeti, earlier music from his pen than most of us know, delightful and sweet. Yet this Concert Românesc had raised waves, banned by Bucharest authorities after one rehearsal; today, it sounds like a louder and more inebriated paraphrase of one of Enesco’s Romanian Rhapsodies, and a lot more fun that Salonen, aided by a couple of offstage musicians, rode to glory.

At the end came Witold Lutoslawski — another of Steve Stucky’s teachers, and a familiar and much-admired visitor here in his last years. His Concerto for Orchestra preceded those years. It dates from 1954, and shows a composer in his early 40s, writing with the ebullience and the wit that stayed with him to the end, but working within limits carefully defined by a watchful Soviet rule. The music is strongly outlined, folk or folklike, splendidly bright in coloration. You already know, from this early flight, where this composer will soar once his wings are set free.

Positive VibrationsI cannot find enough words of praise for the Philharmonic management for the outlay of imagination, and its realization in special projects like these “Shadow of Stalin” concerts and the “Minimalist Jukebox” of fond memory. They convey the message that the Philharmonic exists as a positive force in creating a culturally aware, informed public. The success has been overwhelming. You could have argued in the first year at Disney Hall that people were being lured by the new hall. Now it is four years later, and you should have seen the crowd on May 25 for a concert of excerpts from two Shostakovich operas and some other grinding Soviet stuff — by no measure an easy-listening program. You couldn’t get near the place; the crowd was mixed in age; at the end, they stayed to cheer their collective heads off — not dash out to grab a taxi as in New York.

The concerts themselves were put together with high imagination. It was a nice touch to have an old, original art-nouveau theremin on the stage, standing beside the one that was actually performed upon, during Gavriil Popov’s Komsomol Patron of Electrification. (I’m sorry to have missed “Pravda,” the all-nighter, with the orchestra of 10 theremins, but I had a note from my doctor.) There were valuable film clips, and a fabulous climax with a complete screening of the Eisenstein masterpiece Alexander Nevsky with Prokofiev’s music performed live by Salonen and the Philharmonic, energized by the screen over their heads. Is there a more spine-crushing sequence in all film sound than those crashes of Prokofiev’s motoric, propulsive music in Nevsky against the bodies and steel of Eisenstein’s opposing armies? And wasn’t it further amazing to hear the splendor of that horrific noise resounding in Disney?

I wrote about Popov in 2004, at the appearance on disc of his one unadulterated symphonic work before Stalin’s ax fell, a First Symphony lasting some 50 minutes; I still hope to hear a proper live performance. The film score, as its title suggests, was somewhat more unruly in style, but there are flashes of a lyric style of considerable depth. Of the major musical talents that emerged during the time of Stalin and then fought to emerge from his shadow, Popov’s throttled genius constitutes a Russian tragedy all its own.

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