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LACMA backs into Bach

December 16, 2008 |  1:30 pm

HearstMusic somehow manages to hang on at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  There isn’t much of it any longer.  Yet if the atmosphere Monday night hardly resembled the inviting character of the Monday Evening Concerts of old -- which were eliminated from the museum three years ago and now play to excited full houses at the Colburn School –- the programming still did.

The mandate at LACMA is that music may no longer stand on its own but must serve the museum's art, which may explain why we no longer enter the Bing Theater through the lobby but on a cold, wet night from outdoors, as if through the servants' entrance.  Monday was meant to celebrate the exhibition “Hearst the Collector.”  The best music money could buy was out of the question.  An evening of music by Bernard Herrmann, who scored “Citizen Kane,” would have worked.  Or maybe songs associated with the career of Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies.

But Mitch Glickman, the museum's director of music programs, inventively stretched the theme to that of a collector’s supposed multifaceted taste, with an intriguing look at Bach, then and now.  The first half of the program was devoted to period instrument performances by harpsichordist Lucinda Carver and violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock.  After intermission, a young pianist, Inna Faliks, gave the West Coast premiere of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg,” a series of new variations on the theme of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Before Carver could perform Bach’s Third “English Suite,” a member of LACMA’s education staff offered an irrelevant pep talk for the exhibition -- with slides.  Carver followed with an entertaining and knowledgeable introduction to Bach and the harpsichord.  But after 20 minutes of amplified speaking, your ears needed a substantial amount of time to adjust to small tinkling sounds in a large, dry room.

Even though hearing a harpsichord in the Bing is the aural equivalent of looking through the wrong end of a telescope, Carver’s spirited, fluid Bach danced with charm. But then Blumenstock’s performance of Bach’s Sixth Violin Sonata added balance problems, dominating the harpsichord.  Period instruments simply don’t work in this hall.

With intermission came a mini-riot.  At LACMA, the music lover’s special is to close the cafe’s grill an hour before the concert.  Monday’s rainy day special was to close it even earlier than advertised.  But an announcement from the stage invited the audience to the cafe at intermission, and to it we thronged.  The doors were bolted.  “Storm the Bastille,” someone in the crowd joked.  Eventually an employee came out and shooed everyone away.

The audience was depressingly small to begin with, and after that incident it became smaller still for “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg.”  There were no program notes about the project other than an acknowledgment that it had been commissioned by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival for pianist Gilbert Kalish in 2004.  The composers include some who are well known: William Bolcom, Lukas Foss and the jazz pianist Fred Hersch.  There are also Bright Sheng, Derek Bermel and Jennifer Higdon.  Among the less familiar names are Mischa Zupko and Stanley Walden.  Faliks in her spoken introduction (everyone talks at LACMA) rambled on about Bach, not the contemporary composers.  She did announce, though, that Tania Leon had added a new variation not listed in the program.

That wasn't all that wasn’t listed.  The variations in the score by Fred Lerdahl and David Del Tredici weren’t there.  Del Tredici’s “My Goldberg” was credited to Bolcom (his is “Yet Another Goldberg”).  And so on.  Faliks, moreover, added a short variation of her own, which she did list.

Deconstruction was a common approach.  Zupko played around with resonances.  Higdon went in for ornamental counterpoint.  Bolcom’s piece is a small exercise for the left hand.  Bermel’s is a smashing display of smashing chords.  Sheng made an academic-sounding fugato.  Del Tredici stuck to the sinuously sweet.

I liked the last two best.  Ralf Gothoni (the first winner of the Gilmore Artist Award, presented every four years to a distinguished pianist) created a flowery Rococo cake out of the Bach theme.  Hersch titled his variation “Melancholy Minuet,” and it was lovely.

Faliks is a forthright player who phrases in emphatic declarative statements, and she seemed to lack, especially in comparison with Carver, elegance.  But her forthright style grew on this listener, especially in the more dramatic variations, to which she brought real flair.   

For all its problems, this was a concert worth presenting.  I wish someone would tell that to inhospitable museum officials.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: An undated portrait of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). Credit: Associated Press