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EROTIC ‘ULYSSES’ PREMIERE : SCHWARZ BIDS A QUIET FAREWELL IN PASADENA

Times Music Critic

There were no speeches Saturday night at Ambassador Auditorium. No tributes. No flowers. No festive apostrophes in the program booklet.

There was no gush. There wasn’t even a full house.

After eight years as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz relinquished his post without frills and without fuss.

Perhaps he wanted it that way. He has always been a tasteful leader, a serious musician, a no-nonsense conductor. During his distinguished tenure, he never bothered to generate much personal theatricality on the podium, and he certainly didn’t go out of his way to create a mystical image off the podium.

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His ego never got in the way of his art.

Apart from the possible indulgence of a sweet, popsy conclusion, his valedictory suggested nothing so much as business as usual--admirable, enlightened business.

The concert opened with Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’oye,” a suite of six fairy-tale miniatures delineated with maximum poise, charm and clarity.

Then came a novelty: the West Coast premiere of “Flower of the Mountain” by the winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize, Stephen Albert.

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A well-crafted, sometimes lush and often languid setting of Molly Bloom’s erotic soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the dramatic scena must have caused some discomfort for the series sponsor, the Ambassador Foundation, and for its sponsor, the morally pristine Worldwide Church of God.

Given the potentially provocative literary circumstances, the absence of a text in the printed program could have been no oversight. Joyce’s quaintly passionate poetry, written 64 years ago, must still be considered incendiary in some quarters.

Unfortunately, Albert’s neat, dreamy, neo-romantic music--an evocation of ethereal Strauss here, a hint of the bleak Britten there--isn’t incendiary at all. For all its prettiness, for all its shimmering secondhand operatic affect, it smoothes any rough edges implicit in the words and bleaches any traces of dirt.

The composer somehow turns earthy Molly into something of a saint. Her final, gutsy longings suggest the transfiguration of a “Liebestod.”

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Inadvertently, Albert protected delicate Ambassador sensibilities further by writing high, soaring vocal lines that tend automatically to obscure consonant definitions. The limpid-toned soprano soloist, Carol Webber, compounded the communicative problem with generally unintelligible diction.

After intermission, Schwarz & Co. turned, elegantly and eloquently, to the piquant verve of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony. Then the maestro ended the Chamber Orchestra season, and his official tenure as boss (he returns next season as guest conductor), with a medley of gypsy-pipsy kicks and turns, courtesy of Brahms.

Seizing six foolproof Hungarian Dances, Schwarz offered object lessons in melodic stretching and rubato teasing, in lyrical insinuation and rhythmic punch. Brahms emerged polished, subtle and spiffy. Obviously, there was no place here for a nostalgic sigh or a furtive tear.

Exit Gerard Schwarz, smiling.

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