The night sky in midsummer over the Athenian forest is fully dark; over Sweden’s northern latitudes it maintains a dusky twilight streaked with sunset reds. By delicious happenstance, both phenomena have been ours to observe and marvel at lately: the deep night of Shakespeare, via Mendelssohn, at the Hollywood Bowl; the “smiles” of Ingmar Bergman’s summer night, via Stephen Sondheim’s magical night music, continuing through the month at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; both venues rendered sublime by context.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has its own history at the Bowl. Survivors remain from the grandiose 1934 Max Reinhardt production, which, filmed a year later and decked out that time with Erich Korngold’s lush rewrite of the Mendelssohn score, still epitomizes Hollywood’s take on world culture. Mickey Rooney, the 14-year-old Puck of that production, was on hand in last week’s audience, his still-puckish grin magnified on the new video screens. A quick clip from the old movie made one wish for more. Throughout the evening, in fact – the summer’s first “classical” event after several weeks of assorted “family” folderol – the suspicion kept surfacing that the whole Bowl experience had become a new kind of media mix, perhaps for the better and perhaps not.
Shakespeare’s words, much abridged, were delivered this time not by Hollywood all-stars, but by the excellent local company A Noise Within, with imaginative sets and props easily pushed around the stage and occasionally sent aloft. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic dispatched Mendelssohn’s airborne music straight, without the extra Korngold goop. (I have to admit, however, that the opening scene of the old movie, with monster forces intoning a choral version of the end of the “Scottish” Symphony, does warm my old vulgarian heart.) The vocal soloists, Heidi Grant Murphy and Stephanie Blythe, sang prettily of “spotted snakes” and “thorny hedgehogs” (and returned two nights later to sing of Eternal Life in Mahler’s Second Symphony). Everything that happened on the stage happened many times larger on the screens, if not always in coordination. (Did it occur to nobody that the screens might also have carried the texts for the songs?) A bassoon or clarinet solo in the orchestra was likely to show up on the screen as a close-up of a flutist or the string section. This is a serious matter; there is a real temptation to watch the screens rather than the stage, but the lack of coordination becomes a distraction.
This, then, is the new, improved Hollywood Bowl experience: no longer just a night out at a concert of one kind or another, with the option of food and drink and the mixed blessing of ambient sound, but all of these dwarfed by – and rendered subservient to – a nicely crafted, if clumsily managed, visual component. The metaphor of a roofless home theater comes to mind. But home theater, if I hear the Best Buy salesman correctly, goes in for a lot of loudspeakers surrounding the listening area front, back and sides, while the new sound setup at the Bowl has all the speakers down front, with the music microphoned through first-rate equipment but microphoned nonetheless. The previous sound system, with Frank Gehry’s fiberglass balls turning the stage into Starship Enterprise, employed 150 separate sound sources spread throughout the real estate; now there is one. Can it be that the sound engineers at the Bowl have spent all those millions to come up with the 2004 model of your grandfather’s Atwater Kent?
Summer music means different things to different people. I cling to memories of nights at Tanglewood, with perhaps 15,000 people spread out on the great lawn, the Boston Symphony off in the distance but clearly audible without a single microphone on the premises. There were no police helicopters overhead, no freeway within miles, no audience ears with standards perverted by home audio. This was a lifetime ago, but – except for the last part – I am told that it still happens. There is still a genuine pleasure in going to concerts at the Bowl, and some of it actually has to do with music. Salonen’s performance of the Mahler Second last week was a knockout, best of all when the offstage brass and percussion got going in the last movement (unamplified, by the way) and added a whole ‘nother dimension. From the stage, the amplified sound was loud and bright. Nobody could pretend, of course, that this is the natural sound of a flesh-and-blood symphony orchestra.
Stephen Sondheim’s elegant love games play off in soft twilight, in sight and – in the Dorothy Chandler’s new production of A Little Night Music – in sound as well. Slithery dancers dimly lit move to slithery, chromatic, ironic waltz rhythms. Nostalgia floods your brain: When was the first time you saw Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night? The second? With whom? Literature nowadays tends to metamorphose into musical settings via the movie versions: The operas carved out of Dead Man Walking, Gatsby, Streetcar all ended up as particularly loud soundtracks, betrayed by their composers’ inability to sense – and then to translate – the music inherent in the original medium. The special genius of A Little Night Music is that it does succeed in exactly that translation – not only the words of Bergman’s near-perfect film but their resonance. You come away enamored of both works in equal measure.
To an extent, it’s also the wonder of Sondheim’s word mastery that gives his work its caustic edge and, best of all, its rhythmic profile. Night Music is, famously, a work in waltz time, but it gleans a special zing when the words push it into 6/8: “per-PET-ual SUN-set is RA-ther an UN-sett-ling THING.” “Send in the Clowns” not only challenges the most beautiful theater songs of any era; nobody, since its 1973 first hearing, has come close. For a haunting ballad up there on the charts, it is remarkably structured: a series of phrases, each longer than the previous, thus rising to a climax both structural and emotional. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration of the song, with clarinet predominating, evokes Mozart, who also knew how to build music this way.
Memories of my own conversation with Sondheim, circa 1972, come flooding back; Night Music was on his worktable, but Così Fan Tutte was his other obsession. The connections are easily made: the pairings of lovers who sunder and are then restored in more logical fashion; the cynicism; the resignation coupled with worldliness that comes together in music almost too beautiful to bear – Mozart’s lovers in their letter-writing quintet, “Send In the Clowns.” Above all there is the extraordinary mastery in both works of the kind of vocal-plus-dramatic counterpoint that conquers time: both of Mozart’s act finales, Sondheim’s “A Weekend in the Country.” You could suggest (but to what point?) that Don Giovanni might later have guided Sondheim’s pen in Sweeney Todd. Così and Night Music are definitely worthy of each other’s company, and of ours.