New blood takes on old music

Times Staff Writer

The city of the future doesn’t do anachronism. Or so we like to believe. Every new shopping mall, every new movie is hailed as the next thing. But lightly scratch the surface, and the stores turn out to be the same chains as everywhere else, while Hollywood could be said to be the world’s most avid recycler. And now, Los Angeles hopes to finally join London, Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna, Milan -- and Berkeley and Boston -- as home to a world-class early music ensemble.

Over the weekend Musica Angelica began its ambitious new Baroque LA series at the Zipper Concert Hall and Schoenberg Hall; Giovanni Antonini was its guest conductor for a program of Vivaldi and Bach. And to judge by a nearly full house Sunday afternoon at Schoenberg, early music is in.

Ironies abound. In the UCLA music library across from the auditorium are the archives of the now forgotten Early Music Laboratory begun in 1948 by a former Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Sol Babitz.

A remarkable, if curmudgeonly early music pioneer, he made L.A. in the early ‘50s a lively place to discover the lost world of the Baroque, which then seemed as novel as new music. Stravinsky paid close attention. Aldous Huxley was an admirer.


But Angelenos move on, and when early music exploration took off more widely in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it took off elsewhere. With Antonini conducting Musica Angelica, some of that elsewhere energy began to return to the source Sunday.

Antonini’s own Italian early music orchestra, Il Giardino Armonico, is on the cutting edge of the latest continental Baroque style, which merges exciting virtuosity with garishly colorful playing. These young, stylish, nervy, infectious Milanese players can be as electrifying as free-wheeling jazz musicians.

Music Angelica, under its artistic director, Michael Eagan, is a more modest ensemble, and at Sunday’s concert, Antonini worked hard at jolting the players out of their usual staid decorum.

Antonini’s style is active, impetuous; they stand stiff, upright. He wears a fashionable suit; they stick to formal dress even on a Sunday afternoon. He seems to ooze freedom of expression from every pore; their attention is more closely focused on the score.

A flashy recorder soloist, Antonini made the evening’s highlights -- two Vivaldi concertos, “La Tempesta di Mare” for alto recorder and the Concerto in C major for sopranino recorder -- the prime example of what he was after.

He loves effects, and Vivaldi gives him plenty of material to work with. In the slow movement of the C-major concerto, for instance, his embellishments were so elaborate, his exaggerations of dissonances so brazen, that it began to sound like his inspiration was less musty old documents in a Venice library than Coltrane playing “Greensleeves.”

Musica Angelica will have a way to go before it can demonstrate the same cheeky confidence. Elizabeth Blumenstock, the concertmaster and a well-traveled Baroque violinist, was an impressive, purposeful soloist in Bach’s A-minor Violin Concerto. But she seemed out of her more conventional element as Antonini juiced up the bass line in the slow movement and drove the last movement like a Ferrari on the autostrada.

Oboist Gonzalo Ruiz was the soloist in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in A minor. It is the same suite as the popular one with solo flute in B minor, but Ruiz has examined the manuscripts and believes that Bach originally wrote it for oboe and in the lower key. He may be right, but I think he will have a hard time wresting it away from flutists. Despite Antonini’s crisp conducting and Ruiz’s enthusiastic playing, the score begged for a brighter sound.


At the beginning and end were works featuring two trumpets -- Jean-Joseph Mouret’s Premiere Suite des Fanfares (its first movement is the “Masterpiece Theater” theme) and Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major.

In the Vivaldi, the players, John Thiessen and Gilbert Cline, stood before the orchestra, deadpan as a pair of Secret Service men. But our ears told us that their tongues were hyperactive. The solo lines are florid, Baroque trumpets have no valves and Antonini had no intention of slowing down. The near-flawless trills sounded like magic.

Now if only Musica Angelica could develop more of a personality, could demonstrate some flare -- this is Los Angeles after all -- that would be real magic.