Great gifts

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 12, 2008

At WGBH, Chris Kyriakakis of the University of Southern California’s Immersive Audio Lab, in collaboration with James Donahue (who engineers WGBH’s Friday BSO broadcasts), organized a preview of a performance at LA’s Redcat, the black-box auditorium attached to Walt Disney Hall. The pianists were Katherine Chi and Hugh Hinton; Yvonne Lee digitalized Stockhausen’s 1970 synthesizing. It was marvelous. Then I was invited to participate in a post-concert panel at Redcat, where the system of 10 speakers in complex surround sound, updating Stockhausen’s original intentions, made Mantra even more exciting.

Last Friday, at 11 pm, Mantra was part of the Fromm Foundation’s four “60 Years of Electronic Music” concerts at Harvard, played by German pianists Benjamin Kobler (who worked with Stockhausen for nearly a decade before his death last year) and Frank Gutschmidt, with Hans Tutschku reproducing on four speakers (as at WGBH) Stockhausen’s original sound diffusion.

The Germans were phenomenally coordinated, and they played with both impressive accuracy and a surprising jazziness. Their perfectly timed “argument,” each responding to the other by pounding the highest and lowest keys simultaneously, was both fierce and hilarious. The sonic distortions sounded as if everything were being pedaled for maximum reverberation. And yet Chi and Hinton were more poetic. They made Stockhausen’s architectural demarcations more dramatic, so that the entire piece was more consistently engaging if not actually easier to follow, and the 10 surrounding speakers more vividly suggested Stockhausen’s “miniature of the way a galaxy is composed.”

As part of Emmanuel Music’s season devoted to Bach, the late Craig Smith was going to conduct Bach’s “other” Passion, the St. John. Emmanuel’s associate conductor, Michael Beattie, stepped in and led the Emmanuel Orchestra and Chorus and nine aria soloists, all drawn from the chorus, in a deeply spiritual performance that left the large audience stunned and cheering. The St. John Passion is more turbulent and less uplifting than the longer and warmer St. Matthew. Its fast-moving narrative is troubled by anti-Semitism, which Emmanuel’s acting artistic director, composer John Harbison, and tenor Charles Blandy (the St. John Evangelist) discussed before the concert. (A rabbi also scheduled to participate had to cancel.) Harbison said that “the Jews” in the Gospel who demanded Jesus’s crucifixion really referred to the Judeans (since Jesus and his disciples, though members of a radical sect, were already Jewish). And that Bach’s choice of the Passion chorales, the personal musical responses to the Gospel narrative (for some of which Bach himself may have written the words), suggested he was more concerned with universal guilt than with blaming one particular group.

Beattie led the opening chorus, a prayer to the Son of God to show us that he has been transfigured by his passion, with restless urgency and agitation. The oboes of Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte broke through like voices crying in the wilderness. Blandy was an imposing Evangelist, his focused tenor an ideal vehicle for plain-spoken clarity — which only intensified the most painful moments, in which Bach adds anguished curlicues describing Peter’s “bitter weeping” or the scourging of Jesus. The soft-edged reverb of bass-baritone Paul Guttry’s Jesus came with a kind of built-in halo, though he sounded more like God the Father than a son.

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  Topics: Classical , Entertainment, Music, Karlheinz Stockhausen,  More more >
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