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An Evening of Unity in Diversity

Music review: Lincoln Center Festival closes with a fitting, international celebration of conductor Yehudi Menuhin's 80th birthday.

August 13, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — A few years ago, PBS aired a documentary about Yehudi Menuhin that shocked a great many of his admirers. It made the renowned violinist and conductor seem like a space cadet, the walking weird of one of classical music's more dysfunctional families. That is one point of view.

Perhaps it would make for less trenchant television, but another point of view may be that it takes a musician who is a bit unworldly to stand for the utopian ideal of creating a world harmony through music, as Menuhin indefatigably has.

There was tangible evidence of just how much he has accomplished in that regard at Avery Fisher Hall Sunday night, when Lincoln Center Festival 96 closed with an undeniably odd but very moving and inspiring celebration of Menuhin's 80th birthday.

The program consisted of new work written in tribute to Menuhin, who conducted the nearly three-hour program of world, American or New York premieres. And joining him onstage for the final bow were violinists Shlomo Mintz, Elmar Oliveira and Edna Michell; clarinetist Richard Stoltzman; African kora and dousongoni player Foday Musa Suso; beat poet Allen Ginsberg; minimalist composer Steve Reich; Chinese composer Chen Yi; Japanese composer Somei Satoh; Czech composer Karel Husa; neo-Romantic David del Tredici; multi-stylistic New Yorker Lukas Foss; opera soprano Barbara Hendricks; Japanese sho player Ko Ishikawa; and cellist Ole Akahoshi.

In addition to the composers above, Philip Glass, the moody Georgian Giya Kancheli, the rapt Estonian Arvo Part, British mystic John Tavener, Israeli expressionist Shulamit Ran, Greek master of complexity Iannis Xenakis and Danish Poul Ruders also contributed works.

Given such a United Nations of composers and performers, this program had seemed as though it would offer an unprecedented look at the sheer chaotic state of contemporary music today--a jubilant clash of cultures. In fact something far stranger and more wondrous occurred.

Michell, who organized the event, had asked the composers to think about Menuhin's humanistic vision of world betterment through love and compassion. And they responded, for the most part, with music of a spiritual bent, often slow and sweetly enveloping. No piece seemed in a style unapproachable to an average concert audience; only the accents and dress were different.

Much of the unity of the evening came from Menuhin himself. Though no longer able to play the violin, Menuhin continues to pursue an active career as conductor, educator and spokesman for world peace. He is not seen much in this country anymore, but he is something of an institution in England, where he lives and has been made a lord.

First off, the octogenarian Menuhin proved a walking advertisement for the benefit of daily yoga practice, as he bounded repeatedly onto the podium Sunday. His conducting remains vigorous (who would have thought he could pick up something like Reich's phase patterns so readily?), but he is clearly most at home with music that is slow and spiritually radiant (one awaits with curiosity his new recordings of Beethoven symphonies soon to be released on Collins).

If most of the composers wrote to Menuhin's spiritual side, there was nonetheless quite a range. Every piece was for a different combination of soloists, either with or without the accompaniment of the Orchestra of St. Luke's. The evening opened in what seemed like the far reaches of outer space with Kancheli's "V & V," which featured not only solo violin and string orchestra but also the taped voice of a suitably eerie-sounding Georgian singer. It ended with an exuberant Del Tredici setting of Lewis Carroll for soprano, chorus, four solo violins, clarinet and orchestra, culminating in a riotous setting of "Happy Birthday."

The Asian contributions were of special beauty, particularly the gorgeous "Romance of Hsiao and Ch'in" for two violins and string orchestra by Chen Yi and Satoh's ageless-sounding "Innocence," a setting of Japan's oldest poem for soprano, violin and sho. Not surprisingly, the most earthy performance was Ginsberg's reading of his 1955 poem "Sunflower Sutra," accompanied by Glass' gentle "Echorus" for two violins and strings, although the poet sounded unusually fragile. The most striking performance came from Suso, who improvised a sensuous lullaby on a six-string instrument used by hunters in Mali and Guinea, while accompanied by music for Western string orchestra that he had written out.

Menuhin was game for it all. He beamed to audience and musicians alike and afterward addressed the crowd sounding happy as a clam to have conducted his own happy birthday.

One sour note, however, was the absence of microphones or video cameras. Had this concert been given in any other country but Menuhin's own, it would have been unthinkable not to broadcast it. But PBS decided yet another performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was enough uplift for "Great Performances," the Lincoln Center festival event it telecast two weeks ago. After all, it had already had its shoddy say on Menuhin.

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