MUSIC / Uncertainty in the city of angels: David Patrick Stearns on Lutoslawski's Fourth and Peter Hall's Magic Flute in Los Angeles

Almost as an afterthought, Witold Lutoslawski changed his guest-conducting engagement with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last weekend to include the premiere of his Symphony No 4, perhaps as a gift to an orchestra that plays his music so well. It is less substantial than his Third (1983) or the Piano Concerto (1988) but still major Lutoslawski, and it has a distinctively tragic edge. How else could it be for any composer working in Eastern Europe?

Many of the usual reference points of his style are in this score - the dense thickets of pulsating wind counterpoint, the bald solo trumpet writing, the amorphous string harmonies. Yet the expressive purpose of these devices are quite different here. Lutoslawski claims the symphony is in two movements, but my ears say it's a single movement loosely organised in a rondo. There is only one immediately recognisable melody, a plaintive, almost Hebraic-tinged tune stated quietly by the clarinet in the opening pages. It's interspersed with less organised episodes full of dramatic gestures but little lyricism. The longest of these is delicately scored for winds and percussion. Its rarefied beauty turns ugly and violent within a few minutes and finally winds down to a sporadic, descending violin solo. Just as the piece begins to gather steam again with some expansive brass, it's over.

The opening clarinet melody and its many incarnations never reach resolution, and it would be easy to suggest that this is a work of despair. Yet previous sections have such an air of transcendence, the symphony seems an expression of weary uncertainty that's perhaps inevitable at this point in history.

Sir Peter Hall has worked with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera since its inception; his new production of The Magic Flute is easily among his most ambitious efforts here, and was welcomed in the home of Disney: despite mixed reviews, the production was a box-office hit. Gerald Scarfe's richly layered designs were appropriately Egyptian, with singers costumed to resemble hieroglyphics. But he also responded to the opera's whimsical side: the evil Moor, Monostatos (Greg Fedderly), was a misshapen creature with a green face and huge thighs and the animals gathering about Tamino were odd prehistoric mutants. It was frequently enthralling and consistently stageworthy.

Hall also dared to give the dialogue uncut in an intermittently successful attempt to make The Magic Flute resemble integrated theatre. Despite Randall Behr's less than insightful conducting, the cast of fresh, young voices - including Kurt Streit as Tamino, Rodney Gilfry as Papageno and Ann Panagulias as Pamina - spoke and sang their roles like seasoned, thoughtful actors. Only Sumi Jo's Queen of the Night seemed upstaged by the production. She sang her Act 1 aria teetering in mid-air on a black disc - as if just hitting the notes wasn't hard enough.

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