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Orchestral premieres in San Diego precipitate Apocalypse (just kidding!)

July 20, 2010

This was a nice precursor to my current reviewing style. I couldn’t publish a story like this in the Union-Tribune, but my editors at the Light gave me free rein as long as I didn’t diss any potential advertisers or use naughty words.

This appeared in the La Jolla Light ca. May-June 1994. (I don’t have the original clipping, so I don’t know the exact date.) Not too long after this was published, just as I was starting to find my own voice as a critic, Rupert Murdoch bought out the La Jolla Light and canned my ass. I suppose those two orchestral premieres did have a negative effect after all, although I was able to take this review and use it to land a $1000 article on UCSD composers and performers (the biggest paycheck I ever received as a writer).

By all indicators, the End of the World should have happened last week.

First, Steven King’s The Stand was shown on TV to whip everyone into an apocalyptic frenzy. Next there was a solar eclipse. Then, on Friday the 13th no less, Yoav Talmi and the San Diego Symphony gave the long overdue local premiere of Roger Reynolds’s Dreaming.

As if all this were not enough terrible strain on the cosmic fabric, the next evening the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus performed Harvey Sollberger’s Passages. Two orchestral works by local composers on the same weekend! I don’t know about you, but I cashed in all my stocks and bonds, sold my baseball cards and Krugerrands; spent half the money on canned and dry goods, and the rest on automatic assault weapons.

"Why, oh why did they have to play all that modern orchestra music?"

Imagine my confusion when Monday rolled around and Communists had not overthrown the government, Wall Street did not lay in ruins, and the seven angels from Revelations were not dancing a Broadway-chorus-girl kick line in the sky.

When Dreaming was cancelled by the San Diego Symphony last year (the official reason being that Reynolds had not supplied parts well enough in advance), the world premiere defaulted to the New-York-based American Composers Orchestra in January 1993. A tape of that revealed intonation and ensemble problems. In contrast, Talmi and the SDS gave the work, as near as I can tell without a score, a tight, accurate reading; I doubt any of the other groups that co-commissioned Dreaming gave or will give the piece as good a performance as we heard at Copley Symphony Hall.

Dreaming takes it inspiration in general from the process of dreams, and specifically from four literary fragments by Borges, Wallace Stevens, and Coleridge. Many of Reynolds’s recent large ensemble works deal with a soloist and/or a group of soloists (a concertino), and their relation to the rest of the orchestra. While stagehands reconfigured the seating for “Dreaming,” Reynolds gave a brief talk, comparing the 12-instrument concertino to a community, the soloists as individuals within that community, and the orchestra as a “mythic society,” a Jungian collective unconscious.

One speaks of images and ideas resonating in our culture, and this is exactly how Reynolds treats the orchestra in the first two movements, sustaining isolated notes from a stream played by a clarinet trio in the first movement and by two mallet percussionists, piano and harp in the second. It seemed a successful attempt at orchestrating the grandiose reverberation Reynolds favors in most of his electronic works.

Reynolds has a reputation as an experimental, visionary composer, but Dreaming often seemed curiously old-fashioned, its lush orchestral textures harking back to Berg. There was little of the aggressive, disjunct surface presented in Reynolds’s chamber music; Dreaming does roar and howl at the climax of the third movement and throughout the fourth, but with a luxurious sonic directness, a new development in Reynolds’ language since the late ’80’s. Alex Ross in the New York Times identified this as neo-Impressionism, and indeed, my companion, unprompted by Ross or myself, heard a Debussy influence in Dreaming.

The avant-garde side of Reynolds appeared in the third movement, when a surprise tape part adds the roar of surf to the waves of crescendos in the brass. (The tape part, effective as it is, sounds like it was recycled from Reynolds’s Version Stages.) The mournful glissandos of the solo oboe in the fourth movement, invoking Coleridge’s “woman wailing for her demon lover,” were elaborated by woozy string and brass lines, punctuated by violent tympani bursts.

As good a work as Dreaming was, Sollberger’s Passages impressed me even more. Guest conducting the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, Sollberger oversaw a sympathetic performance of his work, aided greatly by soloists Philip Larson (bass), Patricia Minton (soprano), and John Fonville (flute).

Passages was composed at the American Academy in Rome; Sollberger wanted to write a specifically American work for his European audience. Tapping into the transcendentalist tradition, he chose texts by Whitman, Thoreau, and a traditional Modoc Indian song.

There are two qualities that distinguish American music. One, which has been identified by many critics, is stasis; foreign commentators such as Wilfrid Mellers point to this as an attempt to evoke America’s large, open spaces. You can hear this dismissal of harmonic motion in Ives, Copland, Feldman, Reich, and Cage. The other quality is a rude but happy boisterousness; this was apparent in two other works on the program, Revueltas’s Caminos and Ives’s General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.

Sollberger’s work embraced both of these aesthetics in the bouncy asymmetrical rhythms of the first movement, and in the meditative, introspective sections of the second, such as the pretty diatonic repetitions that accompanied the words “vast surrounding.”

Sollberger presented his texts in juxtaposition, an effective musical translation of the all-embracing nature of American transcendentalism. Sollberger takes four different texts, and unites them in one grand vision through his music. It is a successful musical summation of Whitman’s lines, “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself.! (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

If there’s a moral to this review, it’s that new music won’t hurt you. Contrary to popular belief, contemporary classical music does not cause incurable diseases or produce mutated offspring. New music does not make people homeless or unemployed. At its worst, it will merely confuse or bore you, and at its best, it will enrich your soul and rejuvenate the cells in your brain that rot away every time you flick on the television. There’s plenty of room for more contemporary orchestral music in this town, and we have composers who live here who are up to the task of writing it.

By the way, if anyone is interested in buying 23 gross cases of Spam, contact me care of this paper. If you’re looking for an Uzi or an AK47, leave your name and phone number in a pink envelope in the second dumpster on the right behind the Light’s offices.

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