The Youth Has His Fling
Many weeks before the whoopee at the Philharmonic attendant upon the accession of the 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel – who returns, by the way, next month with his own Venezuelan youth orchestra – the even younger (21) Lionel Bringuier had also captivated the local judges and earned an assistant conductorship amid enthusiastic huzzahs. At last Tuesday’s Green Umbrella concert, this slender, bespectacled Niçois got to show his stuff before a grown-up audience – he had already led a couple of kiddie events – and made it clear that he had a lot of stuff to show.
The program was tough, challenging and rewarding: music by Finland’s Kaija Saariaho, the profound, often mystical classmate of our own Esa-Pekka, and Luigi Dallapiccola, the Italian who had evolved a style blending his innate romanticism with his allegiance to Schoenbergian atonality. Bringuier led Dallapiccola’s whimsically titled Little Night Music – lapidary, enchanting, so many gleaming crystals set into a dark and shifting landscape – and Saariaho’s Graal Théâtre – a violin concerto lasting half an hour, dense and dark, loaded, says the composer, with subtle allusions all the way from Arthurian knights to Beethoven. Jennifer Koh was the adept soloist; Bringuier’s leadership was poised, unmannered and clear. Orchestra members I spoke to, who had been bowled over by his showing at the auditions a few months ago, repeated their praise. At the same time, the junior reviewer from the L.A. Times, obviously in need of inventing a critical stance, decided that this was a performance superior to Salonen’s (with Gidon Kremer) on the Sony disc, and that is so much baloney.
About Dallapiccola: During my time in New York – the ’60s, say – his music was a constant companion, at small chamber-music concerts and at orchestral events as well. His powerful opera Il Prigionero showed up in several productions, including one in 1960, conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the City Opera that I can still run on my internal video – it shared a double bill with Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, would you believe! His music was, for me, a kind of reconciliation: intense, emotional beauty expressed in an espousal of the most forbidding contemporary principles. There are wonderful songs, choral works – Salonen has recorded his Songs of Prison as well as the opera – a big piano work inspired by Finnegans Wake, and chamber works. His legacy is small; he died too soon, just as students from all over were beginning to make the pilgrimage to study with him. Reviving this one work, whose Italian title, Piccola Musica Notturna, glides so beautifully off the tongue, should be the first step of many.
Also under the Umbrella were two shorter Saariaho works: Six Japanese Gardens for percussion, ably dispatched by San Diego’s Steven Schick, and NoaNoa for solo flute, ably played by the Philharmonic’s own Catherine Ransom Karoly. Both were “enhanced” – “cluttered,” I would say – by video projections by Jean-Baptiste Barrière. This the guy from the Times nailed spot-on: “Basically the 1960s light-show experience.”
The Winds Do Blow
“Sibelius Unbound” has begun at the Philharmonic, and there will be time in the next weeks to chart whatever discoveries, rediscoveries and reasons for changes of long-held opinions these interestingly planned programs may afford. So far no good, however: Trudging through the murk of the Second Symphony’s orchestra – woodwinds shrieking through the swirls of violas and cellos casting a fog over the insipid tune crafting – can hardly be reckoned an enlivening experience under any circumstances. Heard following the icy clarity of Salonen’s own Wing on Wing, as it was at last weekend’s concert, it lapses into utter grayness. I grew up in Boston, where Serge Koussevitzky played the Sibelius Second almost as an anthem, and where Sibelius’ name continually appeared beside Beethoven and Brahms on fave-composer lists.
Salonen may never earn a place on those lists, but his emergence as a serious and original composer should be, for all of us, a matter of pride. “For all of us,” I say, because he himself has made it clear that life in Los Angeles and the benevolent deal the Philharmonic has cut him, equalizing the two sides of his career, have made it possible to work as an independent composer, not merely as a conductor who composes. I love the whimsy of Wing on Wing; it is a fantasy about Disney Hall itself and its architect. It is about the Philharmonic only in that its idiosyncratic demands are no longer beyond the powers of these 106 players, and Salonen can take credit for that.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s winds are its treasure. Blended into the elegance of its small string section, they create the perfect facsimile of the 18th-century orchestra of our imagination. Alongside his series of Mozart piano concertos, in which these wind players’ ongoing conversations with Jeffrey Kahane at the piano were one of the marvels, Kahane has also been devoting quality time to the symphonies of Haydn’s last years. Last Sunday’s concert at Royce Hall ended with No. 99. I might have been inclined to suggest, ever so softly, that Kahane might consider a more relaxed tempo here and there, but his Haydn performances are irresistibly lively, and, as I was saying, just their sound is a wonderland of its own. So it was with No. 99, with its tricky key changes in the first movement, and the sublime melody that sort of sneaks in to catch us by surprise and wonderment in the second. All repeats were observed. You wanted there to be more.
Augusta Read Thomas provided the evening’s novelty, Murmurs in the Mist of Memory, a 15-minute, four-movement piece for strings composed in 2001, inspired by four Emily Dickinson poems but working up a nice eloquence on its own. André Watts was the evening’s soloist, unburdening himself of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in the noncommittal manner that has been all I’ve heard from his playing in the recent past. Many in the audience, need I add, stood and cheered; the spectacle of 10 fast-moving fingers is all it takes, sometimes.