November 10, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 10 (Britten/Tovey/Shostakovich)

Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

The program:
  • Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
  • Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
  • Shostakovich: Symphony #5 
Tovey's trumpet concerto was not a premiere; it was something even rarer -- a piece of new music getting performed several years after its premiere by a soloist other than the one who premiered it. Songs of the Paradise Saloon is five years old now, and it's a spinoff of sorts from Tovey's opera, The Inventor, about the real-life Civil War-era con man Alexander Keith. One short scene of the opera finds Keith at Manhattan's Paradise Saloon, and Tovey has expanded some of the musical ideas from that scene into a concerto, in which the orchestra plays the role of the saloon's colorful denizens, and the trumpet plays the role of Keith, manipulating and maneuvering each of them. In musical terms, that becomes a sort of theme and variations, with the trumpet soloist bending, twisting, and altering the various melodies presented by the orchestra.

It makes for a fragmented and kaleidoscopic concerto, in which the soloist rarely gets a full-fledged melody, but is instead playing with fragmentary bits and pieces; there are frequent jazz influences, including a lovely passage in which Balsom and the orchestral brass, all muted, sound like a 40s swing band. As in any bar, multiple "conversations" are often happening at once, and they don't always quite mix; there's one striking passage where the oboes are playing a lovely waltz that's not really in the same key as the rest of the orchestra, and Balsom is ignoring them all with a series of frantic military fanfares.

The disjointed nature of the piece makes it hard to fully grasp on a single hearing; it's never unpleasant to listen to, and there are some fine moments, but I can't say that it ever gripped me strongly enough to make me long for a second shot at it.

The rest of the concert reminded me of how spoiled we are here in Los Angeles, where under Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, I've become so accustomed to thrilling performances that the merely excellent is almost a disappointment. Tovey's take on the Young Person's Guide was charming, and all of the Philharmonic's principals made the most of their moments in the spotlight. The Shostakovich was a solid, sturdy performance, but for most of the way, it felt slightly lacking; the Largo, for instance, had me thinking mostly of how heartbreaking it could be with a stronger conductor.

Tovey's interpretation came fully to life, though, in the final movement, especially in the coda, which was absolutely thrilling, and which brought the audience to its feet for a rousing ovation.

November 05, 2013

BOOKS: Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan (2013)

Over the course of a single weekend, we follow the lives of several high school boys who make up a cross-section of what it is to be a young gay guy today. A pair of exes engaged in a political demonstration; a couple in the comfort of mid-relationship; a couple who've just met; some singles who are coping (or not) with the stresses of being gay and alone.

The narrative voice is in the first person plural, made up of the ghosts of the generation of young men lost to AIDS. For me, one of the surviving members of that generation, that occasionally brought up tears, as I was reminded yet again of just how damned awful those years were, or as random words or turns of phrase would remind me of particular friends.

Levithan's characters capture what it feels like to be young; his narrators capture what it feels like to look back on youth. It's a powerful combination. And that narrative voice is a glorious thing to read, wise and insightful, sad without being bitter, missing their lives in all their joy and pain and confusion. There are thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, that I wish I could have heard at 15 or 16 (even if I suspect wouldn't have understood or believed them at the time). I loved this paragraph, for instance:

The first sentence of the truth is always the hardest. Each of us had a first sentence, and most of us found the strength to say it out loud to someone who deserved to hear it. What we hoped, and what we found, was that the second sentence of the truth is always easier than the first, and the third sentence is even easier than that. Suddenly you are speaking the truth in paragraphs, in pages. The fear, the nervousness, is still there, but it is joined by a new confidence. All along, you've used the first sentence as a lock. But now you find that it's the key.
I'm curious to know what the YA audience for whom the book is written will make of that voice and that perspective. Do they know the history of that era well enough to understand it who these narrators are, and will it just come across as old guys preaching at them?

By the end of the book, the narrators are shouting out (to borrow Whitman's words) a "barbaric yawp" in celebration of life, demanding that it be lived and loved and fought for with every ounce of strength.

Stunning book, recommended with the highest possible enthusiasm.