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The Big Score

Rarely performed works by Henze and Mendelssohn, along with a Philip Glass premiere, take on cosmic issues (for better or worse).

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With all the frivolous opening-night galas out of the way, the music season turned very serious early this month. My week began at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra playing Hans Werner Henze's nonvocal Requiem, a 70-minute meditation on the Catholic Mass for the dead in the form of nine sacred concertos. Next, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, came the Brooklyn Philharmonic's American-premiere performances of Philip Glass's Symphony No. 5, an evening-length work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra that, we are told, explores universal spiritual themes that transcend both time and culture. Finally, not to be outdone, the New York Philharmonic offered a rare opportunity to hear Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul, a conscious effort by the composer to recapture the spirit and profundity of Bach's Passion settings. Heavy stuff.

That certainly describes the 1990-92 Requiem by Hans Werner Henze, now 74 and perhaps Germany's most famous living composer. As a longtime Henze admirer who has tried to keep pace with his prolific output over the past 40 years--not easy here in America, where his profile has never been especially high--I would say that this score occupies a very special place in his oeuvre, not only for its musical richness but also for its sure sense of mission and unflinching honesty. The work is a memorial for Michael Vyner, former artistic director of the London Sinfonietta and a tireless friend of new music, but that does not prevent the music from being an intensely personal statement. As Henze has put it, Vyner's "name does duty for all the many other people in the world who have died before their time and whose sufferings and passings are mourned in my music."

This Requiem, then, is essentially a secular work that addresses pain, loss, abandonment, loneliness, and breaches of faith rather than directly contemplating death and an afterlife in which Henze does not believe. Here the "Dies Irae" section is not necessarily descriptive of the Day of Judgment but more likely about the worst day in any person's life. And so it sounds, with its brutal hammering, rhythmic dislocations, and shattering climaxes. There is peace and consolation in this score as well, in the radiant affirmation of the "Lux Aeterna" and in the glowing spatial benediction of the final Sanctus. In no other Henze score that I know has he confronted his audience so openly while still retaining the integrity and consistency of a hard-won style that could be no one else's.

Henze forged his own voice during the turbulent postwar period when many proclaimed serialism as the only way to go, taking from that what seemed useful while rejecting rigid aesthetic dogmas and following his own poetic impulses. For all that, the Requiem inhabits an uncompromising sound world and is not an easy listen, although any attentive ear can hardly miss the music's exciting dramaturgy and brilliant instrumental interplay. That came across stunningly in this instance, thanks to the virtuosity of the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi, a conductor long associated with the composer's work and here reveling in a score of extraordinary craft and substance.

Henze once wrote that he had found his goal early on and that was "to create works of classical beauty. I knew what I wanted, and it was very simple: I wanted to write all the works that I missed in music, works conspicuous by their absence, works that did not yet exist." Now many more do exist, thanks to this remarkable composer, and the Requiem is just one of the latest.

Stirred by the new millennium, Philip Glass set out to make his own major statement with his Symphony No. 5, a 101-minute choral work that, as the composer puts it, draws on "a broad spectrum of many of the world's great 'wisdom' traditions." Using a text that synthesizes the philosophical-religious writings of deep thinkers in Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and indigenous languages (all sung in English translation), the piece has an overall literary shape designed to trace a course "that begins before the world's creation, passes through earthly life and paradise, and closes with a future dedication." An ambitious agenda--words from the Rig-Veda, Koran, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and other such lofty sources automatically invite a comparably profound musical setting. Whether Glass's notes come up to the level of the texts and accurately reflect their content depends on how one responds to the composer's present style. To me it all sounds like just one more turn of the old Glass meat grinder: Out pop the same watery New Age harmonies, sticky-sweet scalar tunes, clichéd scotch-snap syncopations, and lumbering orchestration. For once the accompaniment of cellular phones and beepers in the hall seemed like exactly the right ornamental tintinnabulation for music of such stupefying banality.

Glass, of course, discovered his audience long ago, and the one at bam clearly found his pretensions more than acceptable and his vacuous music a fun, spacey trip. So, apparently, did Dennis Russell Davies, who jigged energetically on the podium and kept the whole tiresome apparatus together with his customary skill. But for anyone who truly values the great texts that Glass has so callously misrepresented with this musical drivel, the whole depressing experience must have seemed more than a bit obscene.

It's odd that the New York Philharmonic, in the course of its 158-year history, had never before performed Mendelssohn's St. Paul. The oratorio is now a rarity, but in the late nineteenth century it rivaled the same composer's Elijah in popularity. Although it lacks that score's hit tunes, the earlier work is in many ways more daring in its structural fluidity and bold dramatic contrasts--most likely young Felix equated Paul's sudden enlightenment with his own family's recent conversion to Christianity. The chorus is the real protagonist here, and the Philharmonic was fortunate to have the splendid Westminster Symphonic Choir on hand to do the honors. The rather unrewarding solo parts were sung only tolerably well, but Kurt Masur presided over a tautly organized, lovingly shaped, often luminous performance of a score that must be very important to him.


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