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Music review: 'Einstein' at the beach

October 25, 2009 |  4:30 pm

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So “Baby Einstein” won’t make your kids smarter after all. Last week, the Walt Disney Co. confessed that plopping kids in front of its video does not count as instant education and offered to refund gullible parents their money. But the few enlightened parents who tried “Einstein on the Beach” instead may have a wiser tale to tell.

Saturday night, Jacaranda, the West Side’s new music series, concluded its first concert of the season at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica with excerpts from Philip Glass’ groundbreaking opera he conceived with director Robert Wilson in 1976. Glass offers the option of replacing the women’s voices at the end with a children’s chorus and that is what Jacaranda did. 

Asking youngsters to show up late at night to sing the last eight minutes of a five-hour avant-garde work is, obviously, unreasonable. Then again, little about putting on “Einstein on the Beach” has ever been practical. Glass has presented the score in concert on several occasions and performed the “Spaceship” scene with his ensemble at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. But despite repeated attempts to find funding for a revival, the magnificent Wilson production has not been seen for a generation.  

Four years ago, Jacaranda did its bit by turning the opera’s most modest segments, the five Knee Plays (Wilson’s term for short connecting scenes) into a 40-minute concert work. Saturday, a block from the beach, the Knee Plays were back, this time with three dozen angelic Einsteins, courtesy of Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.

For many of us who have found “Einstein on the Beach” in the theater a religious experience, “Einstein” in a church is not a stretch. Still, Jacaranda’s concert made a considerable spiritual statement.

The evening began with two works full of sacred connotations written just before “Einstein” in the early '70s: Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” and Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Amazing Grace”). Feldman’s score for chorus, viola, celesta and percussion was intended for Houston's interfaith Rothko Chapel, built to house haunting late paintings by the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko.

This is music in which no notes touch ground, no downbeat is felt and pianissimo is the dynamic of choice. The chorus is asked to sing chords with a consistent “open hum.” The viola has the wisps of melody, slightly Hebraic at first and hinting at Ravel later.

Performing “Rothko Chapel” is like capturing wind. Feldman asks for a calm 30 minutes; this reading conducted by Mark Alan Hilt was an ever-so-slightly nervous 24. Still, the choral singing was sensitive; Tamara Bevard handled the soprano solos smartly and Alma Lisa Fernandez was a soulful violist.

Ks2w4ync Fernandez is a member of Jacaranda’s superb resident Denali Quartet, which has made Johnston’s “Amazing Grace” its calling card. Johnston pulls the 18th century hymn tune in directions it has never been and asks the players to use pure tunings. The result is the amazement of grace made palpable in sound. The Denalis made that evident in, to repeat the only word that describes the music and its rendition, an amazing performance.

Following all this, the “Einstein” Knee Plays, which Hilt conducted with evident affection, were in danger of too much churchliness. They began with a pipe organ intoning the bass line Glass played in more rock’n’roll fashion on an electric organ. The chorus’ “libretto” consists of either counted numbers of the changing meters or the solfege syllables of the pitches. The impressive Jacaranda Chamber Singers made even these sound more eloquent than spunky.

A solo violin – the Denali’s Joel Pargman – played Glass’ classic Minimalist etudes with style and two actresses (the familiar radio personalities Gail Eichenthal and Sandra Tsing Loh) alluringly read stream-of-consciousness texts that included an incantation on the line “Oh these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends.”  I would have liked more electronic punch from Eichenthal and Loh, who were amplified, but they were not displeasing as exquisite aural wallpaper.

“Einstein” ends with a final speech about lovers on a park bench that was written and originally delivered by an elderly actor in the original. Ken Page read it wonderfully for Jacaranda, accompanied by the solo violin, organ and the children singing their one-two-threes and do-re-me's with marvelous clear voices lifted to heaven. 

There are critics who once called “Einstein on the Beach” baby opera. But those were other days my friends. Saturday, Jacaranda brought “Einstein” to the beach and it was transcendent.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (top)  left to right, Gail Eichenthal, Sandra Tsing Loh, Ken Page and Mark Alan Hilt perform Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach"; (below) the Denali String Quartet.  Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

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