“There is the feeling of the vasty deep,” wrote Olin Downes in the days when music critics coined not only phrases but actual words, “of the thresh of waters and the sough of winds . . .” At the Hollywood Bowl, the 10 minutes of Sibelius’ seascape The Oceanides, which had inspired such lexicographical ecstasies from the redoubtable Downes, turned out as tiresome as any expanse of Sibelius on land; for once I found myself praying for an intruding aircraft. I suppose that something or other by Sibelius was ordained as an Esa-Pekka calling card; last week’s programs at the Bowl were part of the Philharmonic’s luggage that Salonen has packed for its upcoming week’s visit to the Edinburgh Festival, and there are, after all, longer – and therefore even more tiresome – works than The Oceanides that might have been chosen instead. On Thursday’s program the Sibelius was followed by Debussy’s La Mer, and while that superlative piece of maritime tone painting needed no further assistance from such humble precincts, I have never been more grateful for its arrival than I was that night, or admired it more and with better reason.
You have to accord Sibelius some place of importance in the cultural firmament, for his efforts in defining his country’s awareness of its roots by creating music in the Finnish language rather than the more acceptable Swedish. Where no musician of quality had existed in Finland before, Sibelius loomed large; he still does. The remarkable measure of support offered today by the Finnish government to young musicians is directly traceable to the nation’s pride in its first major musical celebrity. Without that background, we mightn’t so easily be afforded the enormous talents of today’s Finnish generation: Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. I can’t imagine that any of them – trained in Paris, where Sibelius’ music earns its well-deserved neglect – hold this music close to their respective souls. But devoting 10 minutes to the gray, meandering wisps of The Oceanides can be reckoned, for Salonen, reasonable dues. Nary a note of Sibelius figures in Salonen’s own programming for his first season at Disney Hall; the Seventh Symphony is on the list, but the performance is by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic.
The Berlin Philharmonic performing Sibelius? That, too, seems like a violation of stereotype; yet here is a three-disc Deutsche Grammophon set, in the low-price “Trio” packaging, with all seven of the symphonies in reissued strong, idiomatic performances by the Finnish-born Okko Kamu and – surprise! – the formidable Herbert von Karajan. The set has one flaw, but it’s a serious one: The Fourth Symphony, by far the best of the seven, especially for its power to hold a hearer in an unrelaxed icy grip, is divided between two discs. Sure, I grew up in the days when you changed record sides every four minutes; now, however, I’m spoiled, and this split – especially inflicted on this symphony and on Karajan’s extraordinary performance – indicates some pretty dumb thinking somewhere in the industry.
Salonen’s calling cards for this first of his two Bowl weeks also included worthier stuff: Ravel and Debussy beaucoup and a remarkably strong, dry-point rendition of the complete Stravinsky Petrouchka. A complete Ravel Daphnis et Chloë, however, is a mixed blessing. Every measure is gorgeously scored – especially when, as last week, the performance includes the wordless chorus. Quite a lot of the first 35 of its 50 minutes, however, consists of purely functional ballet music designed to get dancers from one spot on the stage to another. (I have to confess similar feelings about complete Firebird performances.) Then come those last 15 minutes – which live independently as the “Suite No. 2” – and the sky catches fire; there are individual measures in that sequence that are like nothing else in music, and the cold and rational Salonen, in whose veins the vasty thresh of Sibelius soughs and throbs, lights lights under this music better than anyone I know.
Some of this, of course, I report on faith, or on memories of previous encounters indoors. There is no way of pretending that Salonen’s marvelous realization of the exquisite scoring of Daphnis, or of Debussy’s Nocturnes or La Mer, for all the caress of summertime breezes up in Cahuenga Pass, has anything to do with the sound of that music in real life. The sound of classical music at the Bowl is a magnificent fraud, and has been since the first microphones were installed, and will continue to be even if the new construction of the orchestral shell passes muster as an acoustic miracle.
Classical music was composed to be performed in rooms: the salon of a Viennese aristocrat, the first concert hall open to a ticket-buying audience, the 3,000-seat monsters like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Its sound is shaped by the orchestra or chorus onstage, but it is shaped as well by the walls, floor, ceiling and the collective physiognomy of the people in the hall. If I write, as I have over the years, that the sound at the Hollywood Bowl is pretty good – I may have even written “excellent” somewhere along the line – that is only within the scope that music traveling through unenclosed air, from loudspeakers carefully placed or from the stage, still exists without the crucial shaping force that is designed by acoustical engineers and architects under million-dollar contracts. That said, I have to take notice of the swirl of gossip, rumors and firsthand reports on the state of affairs currently at Disney Hall downtown. Unlike normal summertime procedures, Salonen and the Philharmonic have been rehearsing their Bowl programs (which are also their tour programs) in their new downtown hall. The reports from players, who have a lot more insight – and a lot more at stake – range from favorable to ecstatic. Stay tuned.