Gloria in Excelsis

The crowd at Zipper Hall last Tuesday night, for the first of this season’s “Piano Spheres” concerts, was one of those spectacles that renew your confidence in the future of energetic, serious musical programming. These concerts have been going on now for 12 years, and the audience has steadily increased while the programs themselves have become more and more adventurous — including not only great works of the piano repertory but some interesting wanderings afield. Last week’s big work had begun life as part of a string quartet; another was built around the reading of a sad and sexy poem. I heard nobody complain that there wasn’t enough piano.

That’s because the pianist was Gloria Cheng, one of the series’ great founding spirits and a superb adventurer on her own. The big work was the “Great Fugue” of Beethoven’s Opus 130 String Quartet, bipolarity in music if anything ever was, in a keyboard transcription that Beethoven may or may not have had anything to do with. Robert Winter delivered some of his typical madcap program notes and joined Gloria in a two-piano reading of similar quality that had to put everything else on the program somewhat in the shade. “Everything else” included some rather harebrained Beethovenesque variations by Saint-Saëns and the delightfully footloose Hallelujah Junction by John Adams (both also for two pianos, with the two splendid conductors Neal Stulberg and Grant Gershon on the second), as well as some morose bits by Thomas Adès in anticipation of his full participation on the next “Spheres” program come December.

Two movements from Stephen Andrew Taylor’s Seven Memorials made no stronger case for this composer than the complete performance had two years ago. Never mind: Overall, this was another cherishable concert, music for the thinking listener by the thinking musician. The season has begun.

People in Glass Houses .?.?.

They built it, and we came.

Nonchalantly tripping over the TV cables in the plaza where the lima beans once grew, brushing away the cinders from the fireworks that hailed the inaugural of their new concert hall, the folk of County Orange cornered one another, and waylaid the visitors just in from I-405. Had their Millennium now truly dawned? they wondered; could the Boston Symphony, and Carnegie Hall, and those pretenders from beyond the mountains now truly eat their hearts out in sheer envy? “No, not yet,” the answer seemed to resound, “but any day now.”

The journalistic hoo-hah that greeted the unveiling of Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall was, of course, not a decibel less than the building’s $200 million price tag merited. Read carefully some of the meticulous prose — Daniel J. Wakin in The New York Times, for example, or Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post — and the undertones begin to rise to the surface.

.?.?. Shouldn’t Stow Thrones

“We’re in complete control of our artistic destiny,” Mr. Wakin has Henry Segerstrom, realtor, former bean farmer, telling his new tenant, the Orange County Pacific Symphony. “The hall can do anything you guys can do.” That being so, I don’t see much “destiny” in the freelance orchestra that shivered its way through a Mahler symphony on its first night in its new hall (a performance norm in recent years) and mounted three half-baked performances of Lou Harrison under the rubric of an “American Composer Festival” last spring (while the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox” festival, I might as well notice, was drawing worldwide notice and worldwide participation).

Mr. Kennicott, meanwhile, has our Gubernator Schwarzenegger, whose homeland offers such acoustic and architectural splendors as the Vienna Musikverein and that city’s Philharmonic, pronouncing the Segerstrom masterpiece as “the best in the world,” which ought to be of some use in the Angelides camp. Okay. So there were those pretty-good fireworks, a pretty-good sit-down dinner, and Pacific Symphony honcho John Forsyte (not so long ago of the Kalamazoo Symphony), now flashing his supersmile, mouthing off about comparisons with Boston and New York. The next few months at the new hall offer a few serious concerts, and lots of pop and ice shows. Next door, at the old hall, there is some opera, as usual.

The promotion circulating around Costa Mesa’s new hall, in the reams of wastepaper that have landed on my doorstep in recent weeks and in the civic bluster at the ceremonies in recent weeks, might lead one to believe that the construction of this large bubble of glassy glitz signals some kind of much-needed cultural advance for its area. I wish I could believe that, because I do believe that a major musical force in Orange County, with genuine musical talent at its core and energetic, enterprising programming as its purpose, can succeed as well as anywhere else in this interesting nation. Unfortunately, in Orange County, perhaps more than elsewhere, a preponderance of overambitious, unrealistic leadership has gotten there first. What I would suggest, while there is still some land available down there, is for someone to plant a few lima beans, wait a couple of years and start all over again.

Impossible? Check out the history of “Piano Spheres” and ask yourself once more.?

LA Weekly