by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 3, 2003
The composer Lou Harrison, who died on February 2nd, at the age of eighty-five, described himself not long ago as "an old man who's had a lot of fun." He was a great deal more than that, though what posterity will make of him is difficult to say. A roly-poly guy who reminded everyone of a sun-kissed Santa Claus, Harrison seemed for a long time to be the only happy composer in America; unlike so many of his congenitally embittered ivory-tower colleagues, he not only accepted his marginal status in the nation's culture but revelled in it. Yet he was, in many ways, an imposing figure—at once the prophet of the minimalist movement and the last vital representative of the mighty populist generation led by Aaron Copland. His music was so spare in design as to seem naïve, but it was not simple, and he was not a simple man.
Harrison—I have an urge to call him Lou, though I never met him—tends to be categorized as the quintessential West Coast composer, an accurate enough description. He was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917, and moved to the Bay Area as a boy. After a troubled stint in New York, during which he befriended Charles Ives, he returned to Northern California in 1953. He spent the last forty years of his life outside Santa Cruz, in a house overlooking the Pacific. He had many of the characteristics that you would expect to find in a man who lived in the vicinity of Santa Cruz: he wore a ponytail, he hated war, he was fascinated by non-Western cultures, he collected found objects and played them as percussion instruments. He spoke Esperanto fluently and set several texts in that language. He was unashamed of being a gay man, and proclaimed it even back in the fifties.
But hippy-dippy clichés do not suffice. Harrison also belonged to the California of the mind—to the high horizon of the national imagination, the limitless expanse that Emerson hailed and Melville feared, what Wallace Stevens named the American Sublime, the "empty spirit in vacant space." There was much merriment in Harrison's work, much hummable song and rollicking dance; but there were also dark, questing rivers of chant, machinelike ostinatos, erupting dissonances, enveloping silences. He had a rumbling, visionary side—this must have been the basis of his connection with the crusty Ives. It must also have caught the attention of Arnold Schoenberg, who taught Harrison in Los Angeles, and bestowed on him rare praise. "Use only the essentials," Schoenberg always said. Probably against the grain of what the Master intended, Harrison took this as permission to vacate the overcrowded city space of modern music, to camp out in a desert landscape of long drones and mesmeric patterns.
During the week before Harrison's death, the Juilliard School held a celebration of the composer's eighty-fifth birthday. I attended the last event in the series, a concert by the Juilliard Symphony, under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. I went mostly to hear de Leeuw, one of the unheralded great conductors of our time, who drew fireworks of sound from the student players. But the revelation was the "Elegiac Symphony," a grand, cryptic work that I had heard before but never really understood: it was like walking over an ordinary hill and discovering a secret ocean. I went home and began revisiting recordings of Harrison's music, of which there are many on the New Albion and CRI labels. While listening to "Rhymes with Silver," a luminous ballet for cello and ensemble, I received an e-mail from a West Coast colleague saying that Harrison had died suddenly of a heart attack, on his way to a festival of his music in Ohio. He was probably having a gay old time right up to the end. So long, Lou.
Hector Berlioz, who celebrates his two-hundredth birthday this year, was the godfather of all composers who go their own way. Having released the Romantic torrent in music with his still astounding "Symphonie Fantastique," he proceeded to go against the stream of his own revolution and adopt a refined, neoclassical manner. With "The Trojans," a five-act grand opera based on the Aeneid, he aimed to resurrect the high-flown lyric tragedy of Gluck; when the Paris Opera refused to stage the work, in 1863, Berlioz fell into a black funk that lasted until his death six years later. The Metropolitan Opera has mounted a new production of this unlucky masterpiece, heralding a citywide, yearlong tribute to the composer's bicentennial. A Lincoln Center festival, "Fantastic Voyages," begins in early March; "The Trojans" plays at the Met through March 27th.
It is a long, strange, uneven, and, in the end, hugely moving work. To strike home, it needs three furiously committed star singers and a conductor who breathes the idiom. In this respect, the Met has come up short, although a half-baked "Trojans" is still a feast. The only participant who seemed to be dwelling deep inside Berlioz's world was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; as the love-drunk Dido, she delivered a tour de force of style and emotion. She is the closest thing we have to a Callas—an artist of supreme intelligence who is also a transfixing presence onstage. From the moment she made her entrance, you understood what Berlioz was trying to achieve: she gave those cool, hieratic vocal lines the detailed gravity of a Baroque lament, marking out the metrical heartbeat of the music while giving each syllable a precise expressive value. There were shaky moments at the beginning—she sometimes shrieked at the end of a phrase, as if the high notes were mice—but for the most part she mastered a role that many opera buffs had deemed too heavy for her. The lady can sing anything, including the blues.
Ben Heppner played Aeneas, Dido's workaholic, unavailable lover. The formerly bulbous Canadian tenor has lost some eighty pounds and looks like a completely different man. When last seen at the Met, in "Die Meistersinger," he had the air of one on the brink of disaster, which followed soon enough, when he lost his voice during a recital in Toronto. Now he sings with renewed confidence, and, despite a pair of cracked high notes, he conquered the ludicrously difficult Act V solo scene. But I worried about the break between the middle and the top of the voice: there, the notes had a sagging, smudgy quality. Perhaps this uncertainty of tone stemmed from a passing spell of nervousness, for reputable sources raved about his singing a few nights later. No such troubles for Deborah Voigt, the Cassandra: she sang with such golden, glowing strength that one hardly minded her all-purpose arm-waving and mismatched Wagnerian delivery. Dwayne Croft was a muted but affecting Coroebus; Elena Zaremba, a robust Anna; Robert Lloyd, a rock-steady Narbal. Two superlative lyric tenors, Matthew Polenzani and Gregory Turay, stood out in smaller roles. Polenzani sang Iopas' aria "Ô blonde Cérès" with a calm mastery of French style, spinning out a sinuous, unbroken line.
Opening nights at the Met seldom show a production to best advantage, and Berlioz's five-hour monster had a wobbly start. The Met chorus sang with lusty power but with no great beauty of tone. James Levine led a curiously absent-minded performance, hurried in places and static in others. It sounded as though only certain choice passages, such as the end of Act IV, had been thoroughly rehearsed. Perhaps Levine was distracted by the frenzy of what was happening onstage: Francesca Zambello, the director, working with set designs by the late Maria Bjørnson, filled the room with fractured fortress walls, dangling segments of domes, Damien Hirst fish tanks, parades and processions, ritual objects being earnestly carried to and fro, squads of dancers rushing to catch up with the music (shades of the "dance impressions" that sometimes enliven the Oscars), tenors floating in on swings, a subcompact Trojan horse, and so on. Some tableaux had a serene, composed beauty—James Ingalls bathed the outdoor scenes in his patented pale sunlight—but the net effect was cold and obscure, as if these Trojans were still trapped in a marble frieze. Once again, the Met has offered a glittering production with no strong dramatic core.
Franz Welser-Möst, the new music director of the supremely virtuosic Cleveland Orchestra, is a forty-two-year-old Austrian whose tastes and talents are little known to American audiences. Curly-haired and bespectacled, he bears a charming resemblance to Schubert. The heir to George Szell and Christoph von Dohnányi recently led the Cleveland in three concerts at Carnegie Hall, and the two that I heard were wildly inconsistent, which makes it hard to predict how the alliance will turn out. Beethoven's C-Sharp-Minor Quartet, in an arrangement for string orchestra by Dimitri Mitropoulos, lumbered along in slow motion, striving for the tragic and achieving the lugubrious. Mahler's gloriously whacked-out Seventh Symphony made a brilliant sound but lacked passion and wit, as if Welser-Möst were standing back and watching the music go by. Too often in today's younger conductors, one encounters this kind of affectless expertise; the week before, David Robertson and the National Orchestra of Lyon had presented a veritable autopsy of "The Rite of Spring."
After the intermission of the first concert, a different Welser-Möst walked out, and ignited a happy riot in the audience. Two Richard Strauss works were played in sequence, the C-major ending of "Death and Transfiguration" melting magically into the C minor of "Frühling," from "Four Last Songs." The orchestra was aglow and alive, sounding as fine as I have ever heard it. The relationship of solos to ensemble had the quality of cinematic deep focus, foreground and background perfectly defined. Felicity Lott sang the "Four Last Songs" and "Morgen" with immense dignity and heartbreaking directness; like Hunt Lieberson in "The Trojans," she didn't so much sing the music as embody it. The orchestra breathed, sighed, and smiled with her. If Welser-Möst can create this transcendent atmosphere in one out of every three concerts, he will become a great conductor.
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