BEGINNINGS, BEGINNERS

Maestro in action; DudamelHigh over Cahuenga Pass, the fireworks spelled out the evening’s message: “Bienvenido Gustavo!” Others in the Philharmonic’s history among our ten previous music directors – Salonen, Previn, Giulini — had acceded more-or-less quietly to their podiums; not so, our new wonder-kid. The Dudamel era exploded into sight and sound last week in an evening of hoopla at the Hollywood Bowl, with nary a whimper but one helluva bang. Could there be a soul, from the heights of here to the sloughs of Chicago, not touched by the news of Gustavo’s installation, and the bright horizons thereby revealed? The era had begun with a final sop to the cynics: the young maestro, his famous bouncy curls newly shorn, caged — as was the shorn Samson – obviously minutely programmed in the lingo of the press-conference routine, reeling off a routine string of answers: “I love music, I love Los Angeles, Beethoven, y’know, I love my Youth Orchestra, y’know”.

At the Bowl the aforementioned YOLA — the Youth Orchestra of L.A. founded under Philharmonic auspices to replicate the legendary Venezuelan curriculum out of which Dudamel had emerged — led off the Bowl festivities with a chunk of the Beethoven Ninth that sounded like – well, like a newly-founded youth orchestra not yet anchored in the niceties of tuning. But this was only a teaser to the evening’s main music.

A Dudamel Ninth? The doubters might mumble about sending a boy on a man’s errand; they’d be wrong. This was a splendid performance on its way to greatness, its daunting dimensions intelligently managed. The anger of its beginning – the D-minor uprush that both commands and challenges our attention, emerged from Dudamel’s baton, both beautiful and craggy; the scoring for winds, for clarinets and bassoons throughout this astonishing movement, that is the greatest of Beethovenian sounds, was marvelously dispatched as if by an orchestral master who has lived a lifetime with this sublime music, The fury of the Scherzo, the violence of its thrusts from strings and timpani, were properly agonized. Even more beautiful were the quiet sounds, the texture of the achingly lovely slow movement, a nocturnal rapture under the Hollywood sky. And despite the leveling imposed by the Bowl’s troubled amplification, this performance came across sounding like, well, like Beethoven. So, surprising enough, did the vocal contingent: a picked group from Grant Gershon’s Master Chorale and, among the soloists, a particularly forceful tenor solo by Toby Spence.

A triumphant event in Philharmonic public relations, — with all 18,000 tickets free for the asking, a crowd reasonably attentive and air traffic only down to a mere two intruders – it came down to a major musical event as well. The acumen of management, in nailing down this phenomenal young musician from the grasp of an avid competition, has now been crowned. Gustavo has been welcomed, and he is, indeed, welcome

LEGACY
Between Richard’s Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen and the Beethoven Ninth there are interesting lines of musical correspondence; it is a measure of our musical growth that both towering works dominate our conversations here in town these days. Just the notion that both artworks begin on their respective stages by emerging from dark musical cloud-banks to an ultimate triumph had a major influence on composers throughout the Romanic era; start your tracing with Anton Bruckner, and keep going.

Achim Freyer’s Ring – his rethinking, design and production of Wagner’s immense conception, is now three-quarters complete. Die Götterdämmerung the last of the cycle, rings in in June, 2010, Then the whole kaboodle goes through two complete repeats during that month, while the whole city gorges itself on the schnitzel, strudel and whatever else it takes to affect a “Ring Festival” and “Deutschland über Alles”outlook to make Achim Freyer and his creativie impulses feel at home.

Never mind the schnitzel (for now); what Freyer has done for Los Angeles has been to endow the city with an artistic attitude, deriving from a central artwork of world-renowned stature. Freyer’s own work, imposed on Wagner’s cycle, comprises an innovation propelled by an arrogance of creative spirit, such that any serious artist must deem essential to his art. In this Ring sight and sound blend into one further dimension, toward an interlock of the senses. His twins in Die Walküre are defined by costume differences; Wotan derives his authority from an expanded headpiece; Fricka, by a grotesquely expanded right arm; his evil dwarfs {Mime, Alberich} sing through head-covering masks that raise the meaning of ‘grotesque’ several levels. Siegfried’s Fafner, not the usual wind-up toy. Is transformed in Freyer’s vision into a crusty old codger in a bathrobe, his dragon-ness affirmed by a couple of dorsal fins. The basic Ring stage is a circular, raked structure – “a running track” says Freyer — that expands and breaks apart, all symbolically. Much is left for the observer to puzzle out; one curious device is a huge, illuminated human eye that hangs over the stage and changes color. Wotan had lost an eye in an early battle and now it is back to haunt him

What is in Freyer’s stage is important; what isn’t is no less crucial. His work is deeply involving, and we are left free to imagine along with his own imagination. Sleep through a Wagner drama, as some pride themselves on doing, and you have missed several levels of action, of meaning.

Of vocal stars there is a paucity, alas: no Flagstad or Nilsson, no Melchior; a Siegfried without a Siegfried. . James Conlon’s splendid orchestra urges the action ever forward, but its urging is lost on Siegfried’s lovers, the up-tight, shrill Brünnhilde of Linda Watson, the drab, unmotivated Siegfried of John Treleaven (the woebegone Tristan of a few months ago). Conlon’s pre-performance talks are a further enhancement at all these performances. Among other redeeming graces, I richly admired the dark eloquence of Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan in the three music dramas that are his to ennoble; his long Q&A in Siegfried, with Graham Clark’s delightfully antic Mime, have the best singing in the cycle that I’ve heard so far. Yes, including Plácido’s.

A propos Graham Clark: He is also the Mime (pronounced Mee-meh, by the way), no less delightful. In the Opus Arte DVD of Siegfried, part of a 2004 Ring from Berlin, filmed in Barcelona, directed by Harry Kupfer, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Treleaven is, once again, the Siegfried, but Deborah Polaski’s Brünnhilde makes partial amends and the Kupfer-Barenboim Ring is wholly girdled by a ring of truth.