Ode to Couperin the Great

Times Music Critic

After a childhood spent practicing an instrument, composers, no matter how rebellious, remain bound to the past. John Cage's attraction to Mozart was lifelong. Stravinsky adored Tchaikovsky, unfashionable as that was for an early 20th century firebrand. Toru Takemitsu played a Bach prelude and fugue on the piano each morning before he began composing.

Thomas Ades turns to Couperin daily, he told us during a concert Wednesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he was invited to share his infatuation with French Baroque music. The program was part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Baroque Variations series, and it was the latest episode in the orchestra's love affair with this brilliant British composer, pianist and conductor.

After two seasons of residencies as an "On Location" artist, Ades, 37, has become Philharmonic family, encouraged to make himself at home. On Wednesday, he brought with him the only composer whose music, he said, sits permanently on his piano. A Green Umbrella concert on Tuesday will be an all-Ades night, concluding with a Philharmonic commission, "In Seven Days," a collaboration by the composer and his partner, Tal Rosner, an Israeli video artist.

The first half of Wednesday's program began with Ades conducting arrangements of Baroque keyboard pieces. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played "Three Studies From Couperin," and a quintet of Philharmonic players offered the short "Les Baricades Mysterieuses."

Couperin the Great, as the French liked to call him, lived from 1668 to 1733 and was Louis XIV's organist at Versailles. A master of understatement, he used the keyboard to tell short stories, to sketch portraits of those around him. He often offered only a vivid detail or two and let his listeners fill in the rest. The sound of a chicken clucking implies a landscape.

In the chamber orchestra "Studies," Ades adds more colors, of course, and a certain degree of contemporary complication. The amusements of "Les Amusemens" are in the low winds. "Les Tours de Passe-passe" (Sleight of Hand) is full of Stravinskyan funny business. "L'Ame-en-Peine" (The Tormented Soul) gets a tongue-in-cheek Romantic treatment, complete with bass drum.

No one knows what the title of the bopping "Les Baricades Mysterieuses" is supposed to mean. Ades told the audience he thought the mysterious barricades were for Couperin music in a mystical sense, and that is the character he got from muted low clarinets and strings. For his own "Sonata da Caccia" for Baroque oboe (Ariana Ghez), horn (Bruce Hudson) and harpsichord (Ades), he allowed 18th century gestures to butt against the late 20th century. Written when he was 23, the four-movement trio begins with a young man's seriousness, but Ades eventually takes his sense of play from Couperin and ends with a fine raspberry.

After intermission, Ades went back to the source with two original Couperin scores. In "L'Apotheose de Corelli," for two violins (Bing Wang, Mitchell Newman), cello (Brent Samuel) and harpsichord (Ades), Couperin imagines Corelli arriving at Mt. Parnassus, drinking from the sacred waters, getting drunk and a little out of hand, falling asleep and then waking to a celebration of his immortality. Everyone dances a jig.

This is not modest music, and the strings were robust. But they were modern strings and drowned out the harpsichord.

Finally, Ades left the stage to what he called, for him, the most beautiful music in the world -- the third of Couperin's "Lecons de Tenebres." The text is from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Two sopranos sing of terrible desolation, of the soul turned vile, of strength lost and found.

Yet there is never a second's doubt in a dozen minutes of heavenly music that their suffering is exquisite, ecstatic. The sopranos -- Christine Brandes and Elissa Johnston -- sang as if transported, barely kept on the ground by the soft underpinning of a Baroque organ and viola da gamba.



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