There was nothing all that remarkable about this weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic program (repeated this afternoon at 2:30). But excellent orchestral performance is always a remarkable event, and this week’s entry in the orchestra’s subscription series at the Music Center, under the estimable and reliable Kurt Sanderling, was certainly that. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture roared out its message of doom and false cheer as it hadn’t at the opera (under Lawrence Foster’s more timid baton) two weeks before. Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” spun out its web of sugar and hokum with something approaching eloquence. And in the middle there was the phenomenal Mitsuko Uchida, in a one-on-one discourse on the Beethoven C-minor Piano Concerto, enough glory in itself to stand in for a supreme evening of concertgoing. The wonder of truly great performances, whenever they sometimes come your way, is their power to make even the most familiar music seem freshly reborn. It didn’t matter that Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto lingers in the realm of the well-roasted orchestral chestnut — heard less often, perhaps, than the “Emperor” but more often than the superior Fourth (which, by luck, turns up on next week’s program). The Third Concerto was heard in town as recently as the past summer at Hollywood Bowl. You might, quite pardonably, have slouched into Mrs. Chandler’s Pavilion last Thursday night with an “oh no, not the Third again” scowl. But then the miracle took shape: the beautiful, caring shaping of the solos under Uchida’s life-giving musicianship, the sublime way she and Sanderling seemed enraptured in their mutual rediscoveries of the brave drama that the young Beethoven — 30 years old and firmly launched on his campaign to conquer the musical world — had poured into this work. The greatest performances are like clear windows through which masterpieces can be viewed. Uchida and Sanderling collaborated on one of those. You soon forgot to admire merely the presence of this handsome, dynamic woman in front of the orchestra, and began to sense through her work the creative energy that Beethoven had brought to his score: the fury in that stark opening theme, the obsessions in the way just the last five notes of that theme (TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM) echo again and again through the movement, a foretaste of the obsessiveness in the Fifth Symphony of eight years later. You heard the spirit of the composer soar toward far horizons, in the supremely quiet meditations of the slow movement. You heard the wonderful inventiveness in pure sound in Beethoven’s orchestration: the hushed mystery in the soft strings and drums after the first-movement cadenza, the spaced-out stillness in the quiet piano scales that accompany the closing moments of the slow movement. You heard all this, because Uchida’s and Sanderling’s performance was of that supreme order in which performers disappear and only the genius of the music remains. The ultimate test was the hush that fell over the house during the Thursday performance, and the reception at the end: not the usual automatic, perfunctory Los Angeles standing ovation, but a prolonged tribute to a rare and marvelous occasion. Common sense, and an instinct for self preservation, ordained a homeward journey after the Beethoven. But MaryAnn Bonino’s pre-concert talk, wise and clear-eyed, raised suspicions that there might be better music in Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” than meets the ear. No such thing, of course; few works in the repertory are so fully packed with audible agony as this wretchedly vulgar piece of Straussian self-indulgence. Yet the Sanderling performance had its attractions. He kept the orchestral sound well focussed and clear. Barring a few mishaps from the solo horn on Thursday night, the performance had power, sometimes even a touch of wit. If the work must be done — a matter open to some argument — let it be as it was this time. line
The preceding week found me in Helsinki — cold, damp but welcoming — to sit in on recording sessions for Aulis Sallinen’s “Kullervo,” the work that the Finnish National Opera brings to Los Angeles for its world premiere on February 25, 1992. Sallinen, who has created several operas performed and recorded by the Finnish National Opera, composed “Kullervo” to inaugurate Helsinki’s new opera house. Since that building won’t be ready until sometime in 1993, it was somebody’s bright idea to offer the work to Los Angeles for an out-of-town premiere. The good fortune is ours. I will write more about the opera closer to the premiere; the recording (on the Ondine label) will be on hand by mid-January. Kullervo is one of the tragic heroes from Finland’s epic poem “The Kalevala.” Sibelius also fashioned his story into a choral symphony which, surely not by coincidence, Esa-Pekka Salonen will perform with the Philharmonic here ten days before the opera premiere. (Do not confuse Sallinen with Salonen and don’t, for that matter, ask me for any rational explanation of the Finnish language.) From what I heard, “Kullervo” is a strong work, not exactly joyous but wonderfully written, in a style not distant from that of, say, Janacek. One of its strengths will be the presence of the great Jorma Hynninen in the title role, Finland’s superb baritone now at the height of his career. You can bone up on Sallinen’s operatic style with the recording of his “The Red Line,” which also has Hynninen in the principal role. Tense, devastating tragic drama, it reveals some surprising news about the current high estate of Finland’s new music. “Kullervo” will reinforce that news.

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