CLASSCOL

It took about ten notes, sung by the Helsinki University Choir at the Music Center, at the start of last week’s Philharmonic concert, to remind us of what is sadly missing in the musical life of Los Angeles, and of most American cities for that matter. Here was a chorus, with a tradition of excellence extending back more than a century, which performed with standards like those of an idealized orchestra or chamber ensemble. It didn’t merely sing the right notes, or merely get the words out with something resembling a recognizable language. Even though this was, strictly speaking, half a chorus (men only), there was no limit to the beauty of their work, nor its awe-inspiring precision. You expect this level of work in small ensembles; the Tallis Scholars come to mind. Here were nearly 100 marvelously trained singers, who performed with amazing unanimity. There was a depth and a balance of tone here, a truly beautiful shaping of sounds, a command of diction that could make poetry sound not only clear but poetic. Without a scrap of knowledge of the Finnish language, any listener could grasp the sense of the words. It wasn’t only that the choir members knew what they were singing; they made us both know and care. Great choral singing is a cherished tradition in Northern Europe; it endures in the U.S. in some midwestern communities that maintain schools founded by Scandinavian immigrants: St. Olaf’s in Minnesota, for one. Our municipally maintained choirs, for the most part, fall below this level, probably from a lack of caring. Our Master Chorale, which follows a gruelling schedule every season, gets through the notes pretty well. It has a tradition of singing with great gusto that persists from the Roger Wagner days, and which survived every effort from its last leader, John Currie, to dampen it. But the standards of a group like the Helsinki (which, despite its name, is not a student group but a professional organization maintained by the university to benefit the community) are out of the reach of even the best of American municipal choirs. I hope all their leaders, from Robert Shaw on down, get to hear the chaps from Helsinki. They are here as the chorus in the Music Center Opera’s “Kullervo” this coming Tuesday, but also participated in the Philharmonic’s all-Sibelius program, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, last week as a warmup. Imagine, hearing a program of Sibelius, and wishing it wouldn’t end. Those last thoughts only apply to the first half of the program, however: a garland of short Sibelius choruses, written at various times in his career, works of great charm, in a rather outdoorsy romantic style (early Mahler, perhaps, with even a touch of Wagner). They displayed, at very least, a fine coloristic sense in the writing for voices, and they were nicely set forth under the Choir’s present director, Matti Hyokki. To the Sibelius “Kullervo,” which sprawled across the second part of the program, none of these words apply. I am hard pressed to come up with another stretch of 70 minutes, or even 30 or 10, by any reputable composer where so little takes place. Granted that this is the work of a young Sibelius (if 27 be reckoned young); granted, too, the bravery in creating a work in Finnish when that language was only slowly gaining recognition. All that granted, this is drab, tawdry, crude music in which the choral writing is dull, the vocal solos empty declamation, and the orchestra goes tearing around creating atmosphere out of tricks already tried and discarded by the minor Russians of a generation before. It’s hard to imagine that Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted a properly loud and frenzied performance that must have aroused lots of nostalgia among the movie buffs in the audience, chose on his own to bring out this tattered baggage. It does tie in rather neatly, of course, with Aulis Sallinen’s upcoming opera. Cooperation between the Philharmonic and the opera was doubtless helpful in bringing the chorus to town along with the superb baritone Jorma Hynninen. But even a rational admirer of Sibelius, one willing to award points, however grudgingly, to a a couple of symphonies and, perhaps, half of a tone-poem, has to be embarrassed by “Kullervo.” Unfortunately, the monolithic Sibelius hangs like an albatross around the collective necks of the excellent conductors, not to mention composers, that Finland has produced in modern, post-Sibelian times: Sallinen, Salonen and dozens more. Like the demons who haunt the hapless, doom-ridden Kullervo, Sibelius himself is ripe for exorcism. Don’t believe all the ads and other flackery about Gioacchino Rossini’s 200th birthday, or even his 50th. He was born on Leap Year Day, 1792. which makes him 200 years old next Saturday, on his 48th birthday. Any calendar freak will tell you that 1800 and 1900 were not leap years, for reasons beyond my allotted space. San Francisco’s opera company has a major Rossini festival planned for later this year. Los Angeles has no celebration, unless you count the Music Center Opera’s “Barber of Seville” earlier this season, with its chamber-pot sight gags and dull conducting. But there’s a wonderful new Rossini singer, a mezzo-soprano named Cecilia Bartoli, who has just brought out a spectacular recording (on London) of Rossini songs and his “Joan of Arc” cantata, which she sings with flair and with a wonderful way of caressing the gorgeous vocal lines. Better yet, Bartoli has been late-booked for a local appearance, shoehorned into an Ambassador Auditorium recital this coming Wednesday night. If she sounds anything like this new disc, you’ll come away happy.