Grand Tour

Waiving Rules, Ruling Waves

A mighty man is he, this Nicholas McGegan. You might not think so at first; he’s a fellow slight of build, and he has a way of approaching the Hollywood Bowl podium a little like a demure bunny rabbit, but the might is there nevertheless. It’s in his music: his Handel recordings on Harmonia Mundi with the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the terrific planning and music making manifest in his current stint at the Bowl. In that paradisiacal retreat in the Cahuenga Pass, he’s come up with a splendid and workable idea: four concerts on successive classical Tuesdays and Thursdays, outlining a sort of Grand Tour, with the young Wolfgang Mozart as the Grand Tourist who travels from one musical milieu to another – London, Venice, Paris, Vienna – surrounded by other people’s music in each place but also working on his own. This grows, from the baby talk of a First Symphony composed in London to the passion and original genius of the final “Jupiter” Symphony in Vienna. (Curiously enough, a tune that turns up in the slow movement of that First Symphony becomes, with or without Mozart’s contrivance, an important element in the “Jupiter.”)

The first program, which found the child Mozart being toasted in the Handel-dominated London, enlisted the aid of the fine British tenor John Mark Ainsley in a couple of Handel arias (“Where’er you walk,” “Waft her, angels”) of familiar but ravishing beauty, and also a couple with awesome coloratura that, alas, inspired some pretty dismal imitators in the men’s room at halftime. (I don’t get paid to review bathroom coloraturas.) At the end, there was music from Alfred by Thomas Arne, whose final number, McGegan told the crowd, “encapsulates all the virtues the British admire and like to think they possess.” Whereupon all 6,000 of us stood and sang “Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules the waves” and departed happy.

Vivaldi was the marquee name in Venice in 1770, when the 14-year-old Mozart brought in his Mitridate, Re di Ponto; McGegan’s second program leaned strongly toward the native son, with only two short orchestral bits from Mozart’s opera. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour performed two of Vivaldi’s solo concertos, of which one, in C major, also called for a solo lute as accompaniment in the slow movement; that work too (No. 190 in the catalog) stood out above the Vivaldian grasslands by virtue of some interesting dissonant harmonies. Chalifour also led the ensemble in two of Vivaldi’s concertos for four violins, from the notable “Estro Armonico” collection, whose intertwined writing for soloists probably had a direct influence on Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos.

I write in midseries, with Paris and Vienna still to be heard; so far, the turnout has been above average for midweek attendance, even though these programs do not call upon the full orchestral forces – and surely sound better through the amplification for exactly that reason. It’s about time that Bowl management occasionally faced the idea that this can be a place for brain-involving programming such as this miniseries, not only for music of the pleasant past but also – just now and then – something from our own time.

Obiter dictum: I hope you won’t confuse McGegan’s “Grand Tour” with Classical Destinations, a dreadful package from EMI (CD, DVD and a book from Amadeus Press) of error-ridden musical essays setting composers in their native lands with simpering narrations delivered by Simon Callow in the affected appreciationese that, I am sure, is partially responsible for serious music’s tragically low estate these days.

The French Touch

Two operas, composed 232 years apart but no less fresh to the ear, emerge from the smoky ruins of the record industry. Clocking in mere moments short of three hours, with every repeat and da capo meticulously honored, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Thésée in its gorgeous rendition from the Boston Early Music Festival, on CPO, might possibly challenge an unbeliever’s patience. At well under two hours, a long-hoped-for recording of Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue on Telarc should be cause for some rejoicing despite predictable flaws.

To Thésée, then, the masterpiece of the sublime opportunist who weaseled his way into the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and practically invented the art of opera, dance and all the fancy production values they required. You love it or you don’t. There is a love story: Theseus and his Aeglé. The jealous Medea tries to interfere and is almost successful. Five minutes before the final curtain, the goddess Minerva, dea ex machina, drops in (literally) in her chariot, with full brass band, and resolves everybody’s problems. Before this, there has been three hours’ worth of splendid music, sent forth in wonderful Baroque sonorities by the Boston Ensemble led by the lutenist Paul O’Dette, who has played here many times and whom we all know to be the best there is. So are Howard Crook, the countertenor who sings Theseus, and Ellen Hargis, the Aeglé.

We all know and love Paul Dukas’ 1897 tone poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for more, I hope, than the cut-down version in Fantasia. His fantasy opera about Ariane and Bluebeard, written 10 years later, uses a text by Maurice Maeterlinck, a strange affair not easily unraveled. Ariane is the Seventh Wife, who outlives her predecessors to live on with her mysterious seducer. He, meanwhile, barely survives an attack by villagers outside his castle, angered by his evil deeds. The opera was admired in its time by no less than Arnold Schoenberg.

Now it’s here, in a recording led by the omnivorous Leon Botstein, with the BBC Symphony sounding somewhat tentative and the recorded sound a little murky, but enough to convey the remarkable richness and range of color in the scoring. The sounds are late French; I want to say Franck or d’Indy, but the music is better than anything I know by either of them. It’s a fascinating score all by itself. The singing, by Lori Phillips as Ariane and Patricia Bardon in the important role as her Nurse, is just okay. The whole venture satisfies my curiosity about the work but makes me want all the more to hear it live someday.

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