Sounds of Life

Sounds of Life

Exploring the universe through the music of Maestro Victor Vener

By Lionel Rolfe 04/24/2008

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Victor Vener, the conductor and driving force behind the California Philharmonic —which he founded in Pasadena more than a decade ago — makes music in a way that isn’t particularly trendy.    

He’ll conduct the complete Bach Brandenburgs Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium, then turn his attention to lighter fare on warm Saturday evenings at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia and Sunday nights at Disney Hall beginning in June.

Instead of playing the likes of Bach and Shostakovich, there will be Gershwin, Copland, Broadway tunes and movie music.

Whatever the music, he prefers it has melody. He has no desire to shove tone rows or excessive dissonance down anyone’s throat. He has no desire to make his audiences squirm by being force-fed unlistenable music of the type favored by academics and foundations and, until recently, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He knows that those who are snobby about their classical music don’t like to admit there are things they could learn. But that doesn’t stop him from speaking to the audience about the music before he plays it, especially now, when more people than ever may listen to classical music, but also know almost nothing about it.

He is the flip side to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former conductor of the LA Philharmonic, sold on posters throughout all the trendy neighborhoods more on the basis of his boyish charms than on his music-making abilities. Salonen used to make his point in favor of avant-garde music by conducting Brahms and Beethoven as though they bored him.

Vener believes that when the history of classical music in 20th–century America is written, it will be described as a “dark ages.” He knows whereof he speaks because during his own musical education, he was inundated with “bang bam” music of the sort favored by music professors and others in the “serious” music world.

“If you had harmony and counterpoint, they figured you were some kind of retrograde human,” he said.

He does not necessarily object to the notion that the greatest American classical composer may have been George Gershwin, who made his living in popular idioms.

Music, he believes, needs to be treated as what it is, a glorious gift to the human species. From playing his French horn in his living room with other chamber music buffs to conducting summer concerts, music must be treated with love.

Thus Vener not only conducts his California Philharmonic at Ambassador Auditorium and Disney Hall, but regularly showcases his orchestra’s leading musicians playing the deepest and most serious of chamber music in an intimate setting at the Castle Green in Old Pasadena.

At one such recent concert, his first cellist and violinists — one of them was filling in on the piano as she used to do for the great fiddler Jascha Heifetz — performed Brahms and Shostakovich. The Brahms was fine, but the Shostakovich Piano Trio was great, perhaps because violinist Irina Voloshina hails from Odessa and the music clearly was in her DNA.

A man of not inconsiderable girth, Vener lives with his wife, Patty, a son, two dogs and a cat in a pleasant home built in the 1920s in Pasadena, the city he was born in, and where he has done much of his conducting.

The home is replete with musical instruments, books and phonograph records and even a rare mini-clock built in 1727 that ticks and tocks away — and even is fairly accurate about half the time. He looks somewhat like Brahms — you could easily think that he had just materialized from one of the pictures on his studio wall.

Talking about Arnold Schoenberg, the godfather of the avant-garde who came to Los Angeles from his native Germany to be canonized and memorialized with money, buildings and institutes at both UCLA and USC (where Vener got his PhD), he notes that “people have to be willing to experiment. We don’t grow if we don’t experiment. But you also have to recognize that when things don’t work, they don’t work.”

The point is important. Schoenberg tried to write music using only a 12-note tone row, which essentially meant you couldn’t repeat the same note until 12 different notes had gone by. To its critics, the idea was a profoundly arbitrary, even totalitarian concept. And it was based not on science or harmonics, but quite the opposite, on numerology.

Of late, Vener has been reading a book by Joe Eger, like Vener a French hornist turned conductor who just penned the volume “Einstein’s Violin.” It’s about the fact that music is not just entertainment — it is about the universe and all its mysteries.

Vener loves physics and science almost as much as he does music and counts them as part of the same continuum. It’s no accident he counts among his friends physics professors from Caltech who frequently tell him that the newest theory of the universe in physics is so-called string theory. The word is not a coincidence.

The universe is, after all, about vibrations and resonance and such. Vener laughs as he notes the coincidence, if you dare call it that, that he encouraged a nuclear physicist named Charles Kavalovski to “go professional” after playing some horn trios with him. Kavalovski did so with a vengeance, becoming the principal French hornist in several American orchestras as well as a soloist. Now Kavalovski is a professor of nuclear physics and of music.

“Many philosophers believe that music precedes matter; that the universe is built on music. Music has rules just like math and physics. Certain notes work in harmony with certain other notes. Certain notes will always work in opposition to certain notes. Since the beginning, composers have been working with the basic rules of natural music. Eventually we will be able to scientifically analyze music, but the music was already there before the rules were discovered,” he said.

“Musical notes are not just random. They are vibrations that human beings are able to notate, and they have existed for many millions of years. We can have a composer such as Wagner working with these harmonies, testing them, stacking them higher and deeper,” he said. “Still, it is based on these principles of harmonies and dissonances.”

Vener suggests that if you take a walk in the forests outside Vienna armed with a tape recorder and an oscilloscope you will grasp “natural music.” Then, to illustrate his point, he imitates in the specific and precise manner of a naturalist the music made by different birds when they are singing to each other.

A pet peeve of his are people who say they are relaxed or merely entertained by great music. They are totally missing the point by saying this, and demeaning what music really is. “Music is many things, but rarely just relaxing.”

Music is “an incubator of our memories and our emotions,” he says.

It also is highly political and cultural. At a recent concert at the Ambassador of “Celtic” music, for example, he played “Walking Through the Green” from Leroy Anderson — about the plight of the Irish conscripted into the Queen’s Army. It sounds jolly, he points out, but it is, in fact, angry and ironic at the same time.

He notes that David of the Bible was famous for his poems from which the phrase “Walking Through the Valley of Death” comes. But more than the poem, he wonders what the music David (who was primarily a troubadour) played sounded like.

Vener is proud of the fact that Cal Phil, based in his hometown of Pasadena, has found a place in the musical ferment of Los Angeles. He’s proud that it has a $3 million annual budget and pays its musicians, many of them top-ranked, union wages.

But orchestras such as Cal Phil are fragile, he warns. The vast commercialization that was introduced to the classical music world by superstars such as Yo Yo Ma or Pavarotti has not been without a price.

He believes that the rock ‘n’ roll marketing sometimes imposed on these musicians has sullied the more serious intent of the making of great music. In rock ‘n’ roll, such marketing is OK, since the basic intent has never been much more than making oodles of money. But such commercialization can be soul-destroying to really great music.

In Vener’s mind, music is “how people feel something beyond themselves. It’s something that puts people in tune with a greater reality, a greater power than their selves. Music has the power to make people commit murder and war, or it can give them beauty and emotional beauty.”

Lionel Rolfe is the son of the late pianist Yaltah Menuhin and is the author “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather.” Rolfe is also the author of several other books, including “Fat Man on the Left” and “Literary L.A.”

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