Saturday, October 7, 2006

Mozart, modern music, and Castelmagno

I had to come to Los Angeles this week for a whirlwind of personal and professional matters. Don’t think, however, that I didn’t, somewhere in the back of my mind, provide for a little emotional and intellectual assuaging. This was done precisely in the form of an evening with Mozart at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Thursday night.

I should say that firstly, classical concerts are a big part of something I miss about the “big city.” However, I could miss it because I had an established business with established times of leisure. The hectic nature of starting a new business doesn’t allow for me to take subscriber’s tickets for the Symphony in Kansas City – yet. But, I took a welcome draught at the well of Christendom yesterday evening.

May I present several things for your consideration (insert Rod Serling’s voice here):

Most orchestras around the country (and I don’t profess to be a master, I’ve only seen 9-10 different orchestras perform and I’ve only been to about 70 classical music concerts) very unfortunately will spoil an evening with Mozart or Beethoven by putting in some mind-numbing modern piece before it. This happened a few months back when I had to drag my way through some tonal modern nightmare to get to Beethoven’s Ninth. Well, it happened again yesterday, though from a less jangly sort than the last modern I encountered.

The culprit was Igor Stravinsky, and God bless him, the work was “A Symphony of Psalms.” I used to despise modern classical music wholly and completely, until a couple encounters with conductors in “after hours” chats with listeners encouraged me to try to “enter into” the modern work. After all, I am a modern, and I should try to understand what my own generation is saying. And here and there, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Indeed, there is an excellent work by a young Vietnamese composer that I saw premiered by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra not too long ago (at that aforementioned Beethoven concert, as a matter of fact) that gave me a lot of hope. That being said, with modern classical music, I often feel like the young child venturing into a wind tunnel. You get blown around a lot, your hair comes out fuzzy, and you’re not sure what happened.

To Stravinsky’s credit (and we’re not going to talk about the Firebird here, that’s an argument for Travis and I to have at a later date, over some wine) he inscribed the score thusly: This Symphony, composed to the glory of GOD, is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its existence.” Emphasis his. Is it likely that he could have gotten away with that with today’s BSO? I’ll leave that one for the crickets.

That being said, he used Psalms 38 and 39 from the Vulgate (that’s Psalms 39 and 40 in protestant editions) as well as Psalm 150. What I was witness to was a melding of the modern musical score that Hans Zimmer and John Williams have perfected in their movie themes, molded with choral singing of Latin psalms, sometimes happy, sometimes disjoint, always completely confusing. At times it was quiet enough to sleep, at others, worse than a freight train.

Dissonance and cacophony have its place if you can render it well. I fear Stravinsky may have been trying too hard. And in typical modern arrogance, his arrangement was without violins, violas, or clarinets – whose absence, in my humble opinion, renders an orchestra (in reach and range) as practically speaking either a bass or soprano. (I would say that the oboist did an outstanding job in both pieces. Her name is Ariana Ghez. Keep an eye on her, she’s an up-and-comer.)

Then the intermission, some champagne and dark chocolate, and 15 minutes later we were deep into the Mass in C Minor, K. 427 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Most of you know this piece, though this notation may make you feel like you don’t. For those of you who know the movie Amadeus, the sublime and absolutely thrilling Kyrie that starts this work is in the scene where Salieri, totally shocked that Mozart only writes uncorrected drafts of his music, flips through the music and as we look down at the scores, we get treated to a medley of Mozart masterpieces. Salieri, as we do, tears up in the beauty of the works. Then the Kyrie of this Mass wends its way in, just before, in shock, he drops all the scores on the ground.

Sublime, sublime, sublime. I’ve enclosed a link to it below.

In both cases, the choir and soloists were belting out songs of praise to God and to Jesus Christ. Instead of cathedrals filled with believers asking for God’s mercy, or asserting that “Thou alone art the most high, Jesus Christ” in Latin, perhaps (and if they are believers, all the better!) unbelievers are singing out these sublime phrases in washes over the audience (perhaps unbelievers also). Perhaps, in God’s own way, he is allowing the children of mammon to pray for the children of mammon, in the language of the Church, abandoned by the Church.

It is a judgment that will be answered. And it is a judgment against those who have abandoned true reverence and true worship of the true God (who, contrary to the wishes and belief of Benedict XVI, the Muslims do not worship).

Mozart, like Beethoven, has the ability to literally get under your skin and make your hair stand on end with his skillful and masterly manipulation of music and the human voice. It is thrilling in a way that few things thrill in these jaded days. (I rarely find an apt use for the word “thrill” in these days of destruction, but please forgive me if I’m overtly “thrilled” to use it – that’s the last time, I promise!)

The evening closed with Castelmagno cheese and chocolate ice cream at the restaurant next door, Patina. Esa-Pekka Salonen (a huge Sibelius and Mahler fan), the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic, and conductor of the evening’s performance, came in also, and my companions and I regaled him with a bit of applause for an overall masterly performance.

The comments on that – ah yes – well the soprano was not magnificent, but she was by far the best of the four. The mezzo soprano was a bit past her prime and her movements were a bit robotic and her tone and timbre were just one shade overmuch, really. The poor tenor and bass had hardly a word here and there, save a few hosannas, but the chorale, the oboist, and the violins – especially the first violins as well as the first cellist – a real first rate player – really stole the show.

Back to the cheese. Interestingly enough the last time I was at Patina my companion and I mused what the “name of the cheese guy” was. He confessed that “fromager” was the best he could think of. We both thought it might have just been provisional, since that guy was new. However, my server this evening was a self-dubbed “maitre-fromager” (whom he said were a quarter a dozen, as opposed to those dime a dozen fromagers – mystery solved) who picked out some EXCELLENT cheeses for me. I confessed my love for blue and he eased my longing not one whit by presenting me with Pena Azul and Castelmagno – both excellent blues – the Castelmagno was made in a very ancient way that showed very little external molding but had wonderful character, acidity, and saltiness. The surprise of the night was the Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Dodgeville, Wisconsin. It has won “Best in Show” two years at the American Cheese Championship (the only cheese to ever do so, I would add, for you trivia masters). It’s marked to have “fruity, swiss” flavors, but I have to admit I was just taken back by its complexity. The maitre-fromager added that he thought it was the best cheese ever made in America. And he’s likely to know, this being at least his night job :-)

As I savored the delicious cheese course and relished the night spent with a 250-year-old master musician I realized that these days were fleeting. I remarked to my two quite wise companions that these times were numbered – that is, those of a carefree, financially independent, single young man. I’m enjoying them while I can – but when wife, children, and family responsibilities beckon (whenever that may be – and with the very pleasant and exciting engagement of my sister Christienne to a fine young man who has prepared himself for this step in his life and sought my parents’ consent – rare things in this day and age of “I’ll do as my please” – that time may be soon. Only God knows.) – I will leave these enjoyments to the next generation of youth with the admonition that I have always striven to falsify – Shaw’s “It is too bad that youth was wasted on the young.”

Published on 7 October 2006
Los Angeles, California

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