The Lemons of Orange

The Pacific Symphonys vanity fair

Photo courtesy of Pacific SymphonyThe Pacific Symphony's American Composers Festival is a class act if there ever was one. The fifth running, which ended last weekend, may have been a lumpier mix than some, but it brought some interesting music to venues in Irvine and Costa Mesa, and some of its composers came along as well. Interspersed among the four main concerts were talks and exhibitions. The Pacific Symphony management produced a splendid DVD full of archival material and interviews, and everybody got a free copy. That's what you call enlightenment.

Joseph Horowitz plans these festivals: not just a lot of good music, but concerts interestingly built around Horowitz's own area of concern—the history of interaction between serious music-making and the consciousness of American audiences. The first of this year's concerts dealt particularly with American composers exploring the world. It began at some distance, with Colin McPhee journeying to Bali in the 1930s and trying, not entirely successfully, to transfer the sounds of a gamelan to Western instruments. (McPhee died in 1964 in an alcoholic haze on the UCLA faculty, having failed to persuade that famously shortsighted institution to recognize ethnomusicology as a legitimate study.)

From recent times, a McPhee imitator, Canada's José Evangelista, came up with more pseudo-Balinese stuff, reminiscent of Muzak in a tiki-tiki cocktail lounge. Something of Lou Harrison's far more observant gamelan-inspired music would have been appropriate here, but he's being held on tap for next year's festival. Instead, in a giant leap forward, we soared airborne on the clarinet of Richard Stoltzman, to the maximal minimalism of Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint and the Yankee aphorisms of John Adams' Gnarly Buttons.

John Adams

Not Yankee but Appalachian, George Crumb—"the Uncle of Us All," as I called him the last time he was in town—was on hand for the second concert. A Sunday-evening program in modest surroundings consisted entirely of his music, with Uncle George himself, in his easygoing twang and deep musical wisdom, as host. He is such good company that it's easy to forget the power of his music from long ago, the paralyzing electricity of Black Angels or the breath-stopping subtleties of the Ancient Voices—not to mention the disarming portrait of the Crumb family dogs, scored for junk instruments, with which he beguiled us last time. This time the music was mostly ethereal, hovering on the edge of silence: the Song of the Whales and Lux Aeterna, with the players in half-masks to enhance the sense of unworldliness. The music hangs in the air and seems to penetrate our every pore, not merely our ears. Crumb enhances the sense of distance with instruments of many worlds: a sitar from there combined with flute and percussion from here.

Joe Horowitz, soft-spoken, rabbinical in mien, a veteran of the wars as music critic and concert manager, has found an interesting niche in his overview of the history of musical consumership, nicely detailed in previous books on the inane media exploitation of Toscanini in the conductor's last, almost-senile years, and on the mass hysteria that sent audiences—mostly women—gaga by the thousands in the early days of Wagner adoration. His new book, ClassicalMusicinAmerica(Norton), casts a broader net: not so much a story of star performers or composers as about promoters and audiences across the land, and about high culture and low manipulators in the broad panorama of the growth of America's musical taste. You wonder at the curious fellowship of Beethoven and Barnum, and at their survival. It's all gossip of the highest order.

I wonder, therefore, what kind of chapter the Pacific Symphony might merit in some future edition of Horowitz's book, if he ever gets around to allotting the West Coast the space it merits (which he hasn't—yet). Here is an orchestra like several in the area—Long Beach, Pasadena, Ventura, Hollywood Bowl—drawing its personnel from the pool of freelance players who work in the studio by day and salve their consciences by tossing off a symphony or two at night. The PSO offers a 10-program classical subscription season, plus pops and kiddies' concerts, about a third of what a full-time orchestra (the Philharmonic, say) plays. Its personnel remains fairly constant from concert to concert—even from year to year—but you can't talk about a distinctive orchestral "personality" when players must shift style so drastically from one gig to the next. The orchestra was founded in 1978; Carl St. Clair is only the second conductor. You have to dig deep to discover the name of the first; people don't talk about Keith Clark except to hold their noses when they mention particular performances. St. Clair, whose talents I would list as middle-echelon all-purpose, is locally adored. He is young-looking, sort of cute with major hair, talks freely of his friendship with Lenny and other flamboyant notables, and builds his prestige with a few guest shots on European podiums.

The orchestra has gold-plated an aura by commissioning a few new works by American composers in that safe, oracular mode that lets audiences believe that they're hearing new music but enables them to emerge without a scratch: an American Requiem here, a Vietnam Oratorio there. You know the stuff; it's a whole repertory designed to allow boonie orchestras on limited rehearsal schedules to gratify local donors with player- and listener-friendly affectations of High Artistic Significance. And now those local donors will stand all the taller, as the Pacific Symphony readies its travel togs for its first-ever European tour, in the spring of 2006, with some of this grand American repertory in its luggage.

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