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Ian Bostridge: Legend in the Making?

All attention is drawn to the hypnotic British tenor during two startling song cycles with Philharmonic.

October 26, 2000|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Chamber Music concerts exist, it seems, as a sophisticated escape from classical music routine, and as a pleasure as much for players as audience. The venue at the University of Judaism, though more accessible to the Westside and Valley than is downtown, feels remote. The Gindi Auditorium has an engaging acoustic and a relatively intimate feel. The musicians appear liberated from the lock-step of orchestral discipline. Most things are probably a bit overdone as a result, but with a bracing relish of individuality.

The program Tuesday night, the start of a new season, began in just such a way with Haydn's buoyant Trio in C, Hob. XV: 27, played full out and then some, dominated as it was by the Russian guest pianist, Lina Targonsky, and with the Philharmonic violinist (and her husband) Mark Baranov and cellist Barry Gold forced to meet her overbearing Beethovenian robustness.

Otherwise, this was no ordinary evening, since the British tenor, Ian Bostridge, who had made an unforgettable impression in the Philharmonic's performance of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" last week, was the principal guest artist. Tall, thin, pale, lissome, boyish (even a bit otherworldly), he is a singer who seems to suck musical energy in, like some sort of sonic black hole, rather than spew it forth. He stands as far back on the stage as he can get away with, surrounded by the other musicians, and hypnotically sways like a willow in a soft breeze. All attention is drawn to him, to his surprisingly robust voice, his precise pitch and enunciation and his utterly amazing emotional focus. Embarking on a music career only five years ago (after writing an academic study of witchcraft), Bostridge has already developed a cult following. That soon could spill over into legendary status.

Bostridge sang two song cycles Tuesday--Faure's "La Bonne Chanson," from the end of the 19th century, and Vaughan Williams' "On Wenlock Edge," from the beginning of the 20th. Both were backed up by a string quartet of Philharmonic first-desk players (violinists Bing Wang and Lyndon Johnston Taylor, violist Evan N. Wilson and cellist Andrew Shulman--along with bassist Christopher Hanulik in the Faure) and the British accompanist, pianist Julius Drake.

This is a startling pair of cycles. Faure's, to poetry by Verlaine, is a cryptic hymn to love, intense and eerie as white moonlight. Bostridge caught Faure's tone of unfathomable but intoxicated reverie, and Verlaine's world of emotional actuality and physical evanescence, uncannily.

Vaughn Williams' cycle, taken from A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad," is a harsher kind of ephemera. Musically, it has the glow of fin de siecle French Impressionism but tied to the British countryside. Death is the phantom here, but often in a guise startlingly like Faure's and Verlaine's eros. Bostridge here was incomparable in making every poetic image come to life. The accompaniment, in both cycles, was also inspired.

*

The other piece on the program was Aaron Copland's last major composition, his Duo for flute and piano, played by Philharmonic principal flutist Anne Diner Zentner and the young pianist Robert Edward Thies. This, too, is music not quite of this world but nevertheless down to earth. Copland's last major work, it is somber, ethereal, mysteriously simple. Zentner and Thies played it as impressively stark and imposing music, and, while occasionally over-dramatic, got to its essence.

Ironically, when members from the Copland House in New York included the Duo on its Copland program at the Monday Evening Concerts last week, they candy-coated it in soft-edge sentiment (making it seem the dottering music of an old man). But hearing Zentner and Thies, and Bostridge and his colleagues, a concert-goer felt like having climbed the mountain to Mulholland; he found a nationalist composer's authentic voice.

Bostridge completes his Southern California visit tonight with a recital of songs by Schubert and Hugo Wolf, accompanied by Julius Drake, in Orange County.

* Bostridge recital, tonight, 8 p.m., $40, Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; (949) 553-2422.

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