It might have happened; I mean, I might have rounded off my allotted span without once having heard a concerto for mandolin in a live performance. But I am blessed with friends of sterner stuff who, upon a recent Sunday, did indeed move mountains to ordain my seated presence in the handsome, resonant precincts of UCLA’s Royce Hall, to share with a full-sized beaming crowd our virginal mandolin-concerto experience. (I must also insert a clarifying note, forthwith, that a mandolin and a virginal, although both strung with resonant and expressive strings, are not the same instrument at all. You could look it up.
Never mind; here’s all you need to know. The mandolin was invented for the Neapolitans, a people famous as noise makers (“Bray of Naples”). Their favored instrument was a satchel of great capacity in which they stored ill-gotten gains, disguised to pass as musical instruments. Lousy spellers, they tried to pass off these bags as “lute” or “loot” or “liuti.” But this caused traffic jams at Customs “fughi per molti voci con confusione generale.”)
The new, exotic instrument has been borne into our midst on the shoulders of a certain Chris Thile. His qualifications to play among warlike Neapolitans are easily attested; his band has taken the classic name of “Punch, Brothers” as in (deep breath, please) “Punch, Brothers, Punch with Care, Punch in the Presence of the Pass-en-GERR,” immortal in the annals of world-wide battle-cries, (and rather helpful to neophyte train-conductors.)
Young, affable Mr. Thile, as it happens, also composes and plays one helluva Mandolin. From under his flying fingers, enchanted and airborne, emerge swirling clouds of musical tone as of a banjo strummed by angels. His four-movement Concerto bears the subtitle of maximum logic, “to the Stars On Pigs’ Wings.” It draws its inspirations from the breezes that blow though Locatelli and that gang; autrement dit, he is one of us, to the manner born. In other words: his Concerto, which had its first-ever hearing at Royce at a exhilarating concert by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (lovable bunch, they) is a small masterwork instantly lovable, out of which he himself did play the veritable Hades.
MY COUNTRY ‘TIS: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring began the program, fluently and hauntingly; it escorts the word “exquisite” into the American dance repertory; when heard in the composer’s setting for thirteen instruments, the pristine setting that enables an orchestra’s solo players to evoke a hearer’s tears of delight — as did LACO’s oboist Allan Vogel, his windy cohorts David Shostac and Joshua Ranz, the glistening insistence of David Washburn’s trumpet. I love LACO, for all the right reasons – the wind quartet playing a supple as velvet cat-and-mouse in a Mozart exchange with top boss Jeff Kahane, the sturdy but subtle bravado of the almost-folksy dancers in their Appalachian rituals designate LACO as our most nearly supreme ensemble of its kind. The irresistibly evocative solo playing, threaded through their Music for the Theater (highlight among highlights on this notably magical program) remains a happy memory. It’s actually a fascinating piece, for the music and for its historical place: a young composer building his music kingdom from a base in Paris, the most thrilling location for an early-twenties American. I don’t know another piece so energized by its own time and place, discovering – in Jazz – a whole new language to go along with his reborn American conscience. What’s amazing, too, is how much of this wide-eyed enthusiasm of Aaron Copland, circa 1924, achieves this throbbing, thrilling relationship with a Brave New World that he had so recently discovered and made his own.
SMALL CHANGE: A paltry twenty dollars (even less in the discount joints) takes you to a virtual simulacrum of the sound of Disney Hall in full acoustical splendor, and the glorious noise therein of our boy prodigy and the 106 music-makers executing his will under his baton: the inaugural concert under Gustavo Dudamel’s Philharmonic leadership, last October 8, in a Sony DVD. Pandemonia new and old: the mingled haywire of John Adams’s City Noir in its world premiere and Gustav Mahler’s unchallengeable paradigm – the paint still wet – of what every composer’s First Symphony should sound like, what bridges to burn.
SWEDISH MODERN: It was appropriate for Bill Lane, the Philharmonic’s first horn, to serve as audience greeter for Herbert Blomstedt’s “casual Friday.” Music in the key of A major – Beethoven’s Seventh, say, or the Mozart 29th – exploits the horn’s high E, the gorgeously raucous dominant note of A major; the Beethoven came at the end of the Blomstedt concert, and Bill’s landings on that note were gorgeously , well, raucous.
OTHER NOTES were welcome, too. Blomstedt’s short stint with the San Francisco Symphony didn’t take him all that far, but he did turn in admirable service on behalf of his fellow Scandinavian Carl Nielsen; beyond that his honest, intelligent work with the “classical” repertory, the marvelous way Haydn and, yes, Mozart voiced their orchestral forces was the work of a musician responsive and exacting. I Ieft Disney Hall last weekend, loving all over again the marvels those old guys discovered – invented, actually – in music not as well-known as one might think: Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony, for example, with its splendid and original trickery.
JOYFUL NOISES: The imperial Richard Taruskin prefaces his tight rope act, his largely one-man Oxford Encyclopedia of Western Music, with a quiet gloat over his editorial prerogative, his virtual elimination of mention of Ralph Vaughan Williams, man or music. We are asked to assume that sheer beauty, the power to move grown-ups to delight or tears, no longer figure as criteria in the world of the multi-volume encyclopedia. The splendid centerpiece for our Philharmonic’s short but overpowering “festival” of Vaughan W’s music at year’s end, was the harrowing, subtle magnificence of his Second or “London” Symphony, sheer love music if any ever existed, every accent and color true and infused with genuine love. Bramwell Tovey, whose talents had hitherto been rusticated to Hollywood Bowl’s modest demands, was the worthy deliverer of love’s sweetest accents.
FURTHERMORE: “It’s amazing, too, how he seems to be playing to the farthest reaches of the hall; he’s really conquering the vast distance.” This, from my seat companion, a cellist, and awestruck by the experience of communing with that other cellist, up on the Disney Hall stage, conquering distances with his great art: Yo-Yo Ma, reaching out with flawless command to the eloquence of his partner Emanuel Ax on piano, with both of them drawn into a closeness with the unspoken subtleties, the mysterious yet radiant music of Robert Schumann which, two weeks later remains in my memory, warm, supple and tangible. What a wonderful concert! Some composer, has sent word to my mailbox that “music is the world, singing of itself,” and I think I’ll let that stand.
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