FELIX MENDELSSOHN HAS FARED poorly on local hillsides this summer. At the Hollywood Bowl, in the Cahuenga Pass, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was her usual bratty self, turning the Violin Concerto into personal showoff. At the Getty Center, high above Sepulveda Pass, sour notes masquerading as authentic performance practice turned a couple of well-known orchestral masterpieces into something close to torture.
Mendelssohn takes a bad rap now and then. His music ambles along elegant pathways; its utter lack of rough edges is seen by some as a fatal flaw, an affliction also shared by music of far lesser stature. (Patience; we’ll get to Saint-Saëns in a minute.) Pomposities abound; the peroration tacked onto the “Scottish” Symphony is one of music’s most endearing absurdities. (In his assemblage of Mendelssohniana as the soundtrack for the great old Max Reinhardt movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the one with Mickey Rooney as Puck — Erich Korngold turned that passage into a big choral number.) But the Violin Concerto, like its close companion Schumann’s Piano Concerto, is a perfect work. Its soloist speaks in long, lithe, appealing lines of melody far beyond any need for words. At one moment the violin, virtually on its knees, begs for our credence and love; at another, it summons our giggling delight at its airy tracery high atop the orchestra’s pretty tune spinning. It is exactly the right length for what it has to say, and it says exactly the right thing at the right time. It goes straight to an audience’s heart and elicits everybody’s finest impulses — so much so that all 6,930 people at this concert knew not to applaud at the magical link between the first and second movements. Above all, it doesn’t need the look-ma-I’m-sexy kind of swoops and slowdowns accorded it at the Bowl by Salerno-Sonnenberg, a violinist of undeniable technical accomplishment and a deplorable set of musical instincts. The Philharmonic, under the excellent Jahja Ling, supported her nobly; Ling — a product of the Bowl’s Summer Institute of fond memory — achieved a fine balance despite the ongoing amplification problems that have plagued this summer’s concerts.
At the Getty, this summer’s series ties in with several of the current exhibits. Robert Winter, musicology’s Lord High Everything Else, is in charge, so you can expect lots of programming imagination and lots, lots, lots of prefatory words. The last program I attended honored the show of old photographs from Scotland, so that Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony became audible post cards — if rather tattered. Greg Maldonado’s Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, augmented with a large contingent of outsiders to manage the long-beyond-Baroque scoring, handled the unfamiliar repertory bravely but not wisely; conductor and orchestra were in far over their collective heads, with little benefit either to Mendelssohn’s rhapsodic scoring or to the music’s deep, dark beauties. Despite the composer’s prescription that the four movements be played without break, there were continuity-disturbing pauses for tuning up and chats from the podium throughout — that from an orchestra ostensibly devoted to “authenticity.”
Before all this, a clutch of Haydn and Beethoven settings of Scots poetry, potboilers created for an Edinburgh publisher, got tryout performances by soprano Kris Gould and tenor Daniel Plaster in what sounded like sight-readings. (Betcha didn’t know that the words and tune of “Auld Lang Syne” turn up, almost intact, in one of Beethoven’s songs.) I had hoped that the Getty folk might have learned from the acoustical disasters in last year’s series, but no; on the same stage improvised on the chilled and windswept courtyard, backed by a nonresonant stone wall, the sounds came over diffuse and lifeless. Happier memories of summer events at the old Getty remain undispelled.
For hours after Jean-Philippe Collard had left Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto a pile of shards on the Hollywood Bowl stage, I racked my brain trying — without success, as it happened — to think of a worse piece of music by a composer of renown. There are, I admit, many kinds of bad music, and some of it can be fun. (I own up to a passion for late-Romantic showpiece concertos, with the E-major of Moszkowski heading the list.) But this “Egyptian” Concerto, so-called because a gooey tune midway through the slow movement was tagged by the composer as of Nubian origin, brings up a shaky rear. Not an idea lingers in the memory — not even the opening, which comes across as a gross travesty of the sturdy tune that ended the previous concerto. The craftsmanship is clumsy, the overall shape grotesque. Writers about Saint-Saëns in his own time — Romain Rolland, for one, whose Jean-Christophe your grandmother surely read — exulted over his “happy grace . . . an elegance that cannot be put into words . . . [sharing with Mendelssohn] a common purity of taste.” Baloney!
There is bad music that I like (the aforementioned Moszkowski) and good music that I don’t; life is funny that way. My life, in fact, is a constant round of trying to make peace with the enemy, and sometimes I succeed. I did a couple of nights later, in fact, when the excellent Emmanuel Krivine (who had also participated in the Saint-Saëns two nights before, but never mind) drew from the Philharmonic a strong, immensely emphatic performance of the Brahms Second Symphony, conveying from its first deep, ruddy growlings the message that this, for once, might be a Brahms worth staying awake for — as, indeed, it was.
Both Ling and Krivine, in fact, have delivered admirable accounts of themselves at the Bowl this summer, lending further evidence to the notion that all this weeping over conductor shortages may be premature. Under Ling the orchestra had delivered a nicely paced, warm-hearted reading of the Dvorák Eighth, a work which — unlike the fabulous Seventh — needs a firm hand in patching a few holes and retying a couple of frayed knots. This hand the young Ling handsomely provided. Krivine, who had also led the Philharmonic indoors last April, shaped a beautiful reading of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique: not only impressively loud in the proper loud spots, but also wonderfully airborne in the pastoral episode. Neither conductor’s stage manner was what you’d call a fireball in full blaze. Both struck me as strong, deeply satisfying musicians who could be with us for the long haul — if the long haul, indeed, is music’s destiny.