Certain performances go beyond mere greatness; they serve to define both the music and the act of perceiving it. This is, of course, a personal matter; you cherish your list of defining events, and I cherish mine. I can never hear Mahler‘s Das Lied von der Erde without the remembered presence of Kathleen Ferrier as she sang it at Carnegie Hall in her American debut in January 1948. The Seventh Symphony of Dvorak is, for me, forever anchored to Carlo Maria Giulini’s performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on a Sunday afternoon in October 1979. I can‘t imagine any time in the future when I will hear Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire without the memory of the way Phyllis Bryn-Julson performed it on the Southwest Chamber Music program at the Norton Simon Museum Theater two weekends ago.
That Bryn-Julson is of that hardy band of new-music conquerors is, of course, no longer news. Recordings — Boulez, Schoenberg, but not nearly enough — confirm her awesome gifts. Like Jan De Gaetani and Phyllis Curtin before her, and alongside today‘s remarkable Susan Narucki, she has that marvelous ability to find and project the melodic shape in the most fearsome, jagged vocal line; to vest that melody, furthermore, with stunning immediacy through a flawless command of the rare art of vocal insinuation. In addition to the aforementioned heroines, another of Bryn-Julson’s companions in my personal pantheon has to be the gloriously insinuating Ella Fitzgerald.
Schoenberg‘s moonstruck masterpiece retains its newness. Bryn-Julson didn’t so much sing the music — with its dazzling, intricate intermix of speech, song and the infinity of gradations in between — as carry it into a whole new dimension. She became the moon-possessed idiot of the haunted poetry, her whole body agonized within the ”thrice-seven“ straitjackets of Albert Giraud‘s obsessive versifications. The five Southwest players bathed her remarkable presence in an ethereal wash of color: now the moonlight-silver of Dorothy Stone’s flute, now the blood-red of Jim Foschia‘s bass clarinet. Eighty-eight years after it scared the daylights out of its first audience, Pierrot Lunaire in a superior performance can still be a transforming experience; this one was.
Southwest is one of our more curious musical assets. Its programs — nine this season — are adventurous, a nice blend of familiar and middle-distance challenging. This year’s concerts are in the small, charming, newly restored theater at the Norton Simon — unused since William Kraft put on new-music concerts there 25 years ago — and at the Colburn School‘s Zipper Auditorium, which has turned into one of the city’s best places to hear small-scale music. Southwest has brought out a 12-CD box of its new-music performances, including 25 world premieres, and the list of names is impressive.
But Southwest has also been known to overreach, and I‘ve heard performances — standard repertory and new — that should never have been wished on a paying audience. This first program began with Darius Milhaud’s own smaller version (strings and piano) of his fragrant, jazz-drenched La Creation du Monde, which in this reduced version can still be made to fizz, but which the players this time turned into minor-league Faure. A charming trifle by Kraft made partial amends, and the Pierrot Lunaire, of course, saved the show. Southwest evenings haven‘t always been that lucky.
The new season zooms into shape. Just around the corner from the Norton Simon at Pasadena’s attractive Neighborhood Church, Gloria Cheng began the seventh season of Piano Spheres a few days before in a replay of the fabulous recital she gave at Ojai last summer. Music by Olivier Messiaen was at its core: short character pieces with a veritable impasto of piano color. Around them was music claiming Messiaen as ancestor and spiritual essence: works by France‘s Tristan Murail and by England’s enfant terrible (and enfant merveilleux) Thomas Ades. At the end came Jonathan Harvey‘s remarkable Tombeau de Messiaen, for piano and tape, which seemed to extend Messiaen’s already lavish color spectrum into another dimension. Wonderful, ecstatic playing it was, of music that itself touched upon ecstasy and communicated much of same to the large, ecstatic crowd.
The next night, across town in the Bing Theater at the County Museum, the Italian flutist Roberto Fabbriciani played music by compatriots, most of it for flute involved in one way or another with electronic enhancement. Like his countryman the great bassist Stefano Scodanibbio (another frequent participant in the County Museum‘s music making), Fabbriciani has earned his fame dreaming up new contexts for his old instrument; the playing was phenomenal, even when the uses to which it was put were less so. One of the composers, Nicola Sani, was also listed as ”sound director.“ One or two of the works really did intermingle the live flute with its electronic surroundings: the Passacaglia by Aldo Clementi in which the soloist seemed to sink into a writhing mass of flute sounds and then emerge for a sporadic blast; and a gloriously rich late work by Luigi Nono in which bass flute and processed sound were participants in each other’s music making. In other works, including a dizzying Cadenza by Ennio Morricone, the separation between live flute here and tape sounds there came off more like an updated version of those old Music Minus One discs.
The audience was the usual new-music-at-LACMA size: far too small. The lineup for this season teems with promise. It includes a retrospective of California-based creativity including remembrances of the early years before ”Evenings on the Roof“ became the ”Monday Evening Concerts,“ and of that hotbed up north, the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Scodanibbio will be back; so will the astonishing pianist Marino Formenti, for three concerts. I‘ve probably told you all this before, but you need reminding: these LACMA concerts are as beckoning as any musical events in this part of the planet, and God knows the price is right: a paltry $15, even less for us dodderers. Even the time is right; too many people showed up late for the 7:30 start time, so they’re back to 8. Be there.