Classic Struggle

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Classical music is, everyone tells us, in turmoil. That may be, but good turmoil as well as bad turmoil, interesting turmoil as well as business as usual. Amid the roilings of 1996, here are some highlights.

1. COMPOSER OF THE YEAR. It was no anniversary, but it was Stravinsky's year anyway. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic wowed New York a little with a single Stravinsky program in the spring. They then wowed Paris a lot with "The Rite of Spring" and much, much more Stravinsky, including a new production of his opera, "The Rake's Progress," set in an L.A. jail by Peter Sellars. The West Coast Stravinsky sweepstakes also included the most impressive music book of the year and maybe the decade, Richard Taruskin's mammoth two-volume "Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions" (University of California Press). And one of the best opera recordings of the year also happened to be of "The Rake's Progress," conducted by Santa Cruz native Kent Nagano for Erato.

2. THE OTHER COMPOSER OF THE YEAR. Suddenly, everyone is doing the tango, and the master of the modern tango, the late Astor Piazzolla, is turning up everywhere. Gidon Kremer, the exceptional Russian violinist, made a surprisingly scintillating Piazzolla recording for Nonesuch. Israeli Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and music director of the Chicago Symphony, happens to have grown up in Buenos Aires and has returned to those roots with his own fine tango outing on Erato. But the real dazzler was the least expected: Polish-American pianist Emanuel Ax collaborating with one of the tango greats, pianist Pablo Ziegler, on Sony Classical.

3. MAHLERIAN MILESTONES. The Hollywood Bowl turned 75 and celebrated with Mahler (the 8th Symphony); Ojai turned 50 and celebrated with Mahler (the 5th); Esa-Pekka Salonen started his fifth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and celebrated with Mahler (the 2nd). Orange County Performing Arts Center, however, had a Mahler-free 10th birthday gala.

4. GRATEFUL FOR LIVING FESTIVALS. Despite a crisis in arts funding and little tradition for newsworthy festival-making in this country, we got two new festivals this summer as scintillating as anything in Europe. In June, Michael Tilson Thomas concluded his first season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony with An American Festival, attracting hoards of Deadheads. They swarmed into Davies Hall to hear the surviving members of the Grateful Dead participate in John Cage's "Apartment House 1776 and Renga" and to hear them improvise with MTT, and then stayed to share the audience-wide enthusiasms for the greats of the American experimental tradition, including Ives, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Meredith Monk, Terry Riley and others. Lincoln Center entered the international festival sweepstakes in a big way with a summer festival of music, opera, theater and dance from around the world, but festival director John Rockwell also managed to astonish his bosses by proving that there is an audience for a local modernist composer, the late Morton Feldman.

5. TROJAN WARS. The University of Southern California, wanting more classroom space and fewer restrictions on the uses of the collection and building known as the Schoenberg Institute, warred with the heirs of Arnold Schoenberg in a nasty court battle that resulted in the composer's family deciding to pull his papers from the university and surrender the building it had raised funds to construct. Continuing its assertive bottom line mood, USC also forced the resignation of general manager Wallace A. Smith and his feisty DJ wife, Bonnie Grice, from its deficit-ridden FM radio station KUSC and overturned their experiments in multicultural programming with back to the classical music basics.

6. FANTASYLAND. Although facing an ultimatum from the county--raise one-third of the needed $150 million by the end of June 1997 or forget it--Disney Hall received just one new donation in 1996, a $5-million pledge from the Times Mirror Foundation. It did better, however, when it comes to respect. Philharmonic patrons who traveled to Paris to hear how immediate and thrilling the orchestra could sound in the vibrant acoustic of the Cha^telet Theater became newly committed to the project. And the hall got a boost from the art world thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibiting a ravishing model of Frank O. Gehry's design for the concert hall.

7. LIFE AND DEATH ON THE INTERNET. The Internet, which is becoming a more and more valuable resource in classical music circles, proved a comforting vehicle for the expression of grief worldwide over the death of Japan's great and beloved composer Toru Takemitsu. With neither the language for nor the tradition of public mourning, many Japanese music lovers found that English language dialogues with music lovers from around the world was a revelation of catharsis.

8. BAD BUSINESS. Amid reports everywhere about the dire state of the classical music business--record companies cutting back, radio stations selling for sums too high for highbrow programming, public and private funding cut to the bone--audience attendance remained generally good and orchestra players remained confident enough to strike in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oregon and San Francisco.

9. GOOD BUSINESS. When one of Hollywood's own, Andre Previn, was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he would have nothing to do with his previous composing life in pictures, so it has taken a Finnish intellectual, Esa-Pekka Salonen, to get the orchestra involved with the movies. Salonen released a best-selling disc of dazzling Bernard Herrmann film scores and announced ongoing projects with Hollywood directors and composers over the next few years.

10. THE RETURN OF THE (CLASSIC) LOUNGE LIZARD. Placido Domingo seemed to have the Lounge Lizard of the Year award in his pocket, or at least the pocket of the pin-striped white gangster suit Franco Zeffirelli dressed him in for the new L.A. Opera production of "Pagliacci." But then came along the French postmodernist philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, who appeared in cheesy gold lame and sequins to read, with musical accompaniment, from his work about simulated reality on the stage of a low-rent casino on the California-Nevada border. Yet it was Xtet bassoonist John Steinmetz who outdid them all as soloist in Michael Daugherty's "Dead Elvis" at the L.A. County Museum of Art's Monday Evening Concerts--the wig, white leisure suit and dirty sneakers he donned surely had the King doing somersaults in his grave. It was that kind of year.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World