Recordings from California that matter

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Philip Glass at LACMA, March 2011   (c) Bonnie Perkinson

California’s leading musical organizations have been very active releasing recordings this past fall and winter – and yes, I’ve been listening and watching, though apparently not writing fast enough.  So here is an attempt to catch up with what’s new.

In 2011, Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony revisited Philip Glass’s eloquent oratorio The Passion of Ramakrishna – a piece that they unveiled during the opening concerts for Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in 2006 – and the recording came out on Glass’s house label, Orange Mountain Music.  Partly a setting of the wisdom of the Bengali mystic teacher Sri Ramakrishna and partly a journalistic depiction of his last days, the Passion contains some of Glass’s richest, most deeply-felt music of the last decade, which further listening only confirms. Occasionally Glass can be roused to produce something more substantial than his usual collection of patterns and tics – and in pieces like this where he does, one can see him as the still-vital voice who created the “portrait trilogy” (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten) that invigorated contemporary opera.  You will need the libretto in hand, though, for the Pacific Chorale’s diction is not very intelligible (this was true in the live performance as well).

The story of Mexican composer Daniel Catán could be seen as a parallel to that of Bizet – after toiling for years, gaining respectable but hardly stellar reputations, both finally scored a big hit with an opera (Il Postino and Carmen respectively), only to die suddenly a short time later. At least Catán was able to enjoy a brief taste of the success of his last work before his death in 2011 at 62 – and Los Angeles Opera, piggybacking on its general director Plácido Domingo’s new contract with Sony Classical, was able to issue its performance of the 2010 world premiere on DVD.  On the home screen, Il Postino remains a very good, very-well-crafted opera, balancing the unabashedly romantic writing with humor and politics. Yet it actually gains additional poignancy and even intimacy on video, especially the ending which did not have the impact live that it does with close-ups on the HD screen.  Domingo literally inhabits the made-to-order role of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, dispelling all doubts about what an extraordinary singing actor he is. When Neruda hears about the death of Mario the shy postman-turned-activist in the last scene, you can see real tears rolling down Domingo’s face – and his character’s grief is still etched on his expression during the first curtain call. The talented tenor who plays Mario, Charles Castronovo, is good enough to go toe-to-toe with the great Domingo, and the large cast is also up to speed in every department. I think Il Postino will have legs after Domingo leaves the scene, although the video record of this performance sets a dauntingly high bar.

Meanwhile up the coast, the San Francisco Symphony’s SFS Media label has issued its most far-out, iconoclastic disc ever – and that’s saying something in the Michael Tilson Thomas era. It’s a souvenir of the second American Mavericks festival last March, most of it devoted to music that has rarely been recorded and never grouped together like this.  Henry Cowell’s Synchrony (recorded in Dec. 2010, well before the festival) and Piano Concerto are wildly unruly works, spilling over with clusters, polyharmonies and stuff – and they don’t sound like anything that was happening in Europe (or almost anywhere for that matter), in 1930. Pianist Jeremy Denk seems to be having a ball pounding out those clusters in the concerto. Likewise Paul Jacobs is having a blast on the Ruffatti organ in Davies Hall in Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, which juxtaposes deliciously noisy American whoop-de-do with quieter episodes of a Asian-flavored bent. Varèse’s Amériques is the better-known closer;  MTT gives it a dynamic ride and, rare among interpreters, gets the broad humor as well (like the marked ha-ha’s from the trombone.  What’s astonishing about this fresh, progressive-sounding music is that with the exception of the Harrison, all of it dates from before FDR was president.

I was supposed to have been present at one of Music@Menlo’s concerts last July, but was called back to Los Angeles for work and regretfully had to cancel.  Yet thanks to Music@Menlo’s laudable policy of recording and releasing huge batches of each festival in chunky annual boxed sets, I was able to hear the concert that I missed.  The program was assembled under the title, “Transported,” a stream-of-consciousness-like journey from place to place. It starts in chilly Finland with Sibelius’s String Quartet in D Minor, works its way through England (Barber’s depiction of Dover Beach), China (Chen Yi’s Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in), the Greek island of Lesbos (Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques), and the Iberian Peninsula (Albeniz’s Evocación) before finally arriving in “heaven” with a chamber-group arrangement of the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Taken as a musical whole, it’s a strange experience, especially with a Mahler finale that sounds tacked on without the rest of the symphony as familiar context (although it’s true that the movement began its life as an independent song). Yet the components themselves are beautifully performed and gorgeously recorded. This is just one of several novel combinations on this six-CD set, which is entitled “Resonance” and is, if anything, even more diverse than the one that preceded it. Again, it’s kind of like being there – and it costs less than a single night in a Palo Alto hotel.

What is really encouraging about all of these recordings is that they have a reason to be – they are either documents of, or tied to, genuine events, or they fill gaps in the world’s trove of recorded music.  Nowhere here do you sense the whim of a star conductor who absolutely must record another Brahms First Symphony, or a fiddler who thinks the world cannot go on without another rendition of the Franck Sonata, or a young singer on the make who dishes out yet another recital of the usual Italian verismo arias. There is clearly plenty of life in creative classical recording – at least from California.