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Michaelmas 

Michael Tilson Thomas leading the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl

Wednesday, Aug 8 2007
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Ninth, but Not to the Nth

Something, I am sorry to inform you, stood between me and the paroxysms of delight with which the other 12-or-so thousand happy spectators greeted the efforts of Michael Tilson Thomas of San Francisco in his two concerts leading the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl last week. Simply put, that something is my inability to take him as seriously as he, given his enormous talents for self-promotion, seems to expect. That said, I hasten to add that I enjoyed those two concerts considerably for what they were: a lot of very classy note playing performed by a very classy orchestra under a good-looking conductor who’s great fun to watch. What they were not, however, were any kind of serious measurements of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven or — so far as they go — the lesser but worthy works of Bernstein and Copland that showed up on the second program.

I have said this before of MTT in action, indoors and out, and the suspicion remains: The principal subject of his performance is his performance. You could admire the detail in the Beethoven, at least in the first two movements, and still miss the magnificent sense of accumulation that makes both these movements the overpowering experiences that they are. In the scherzo, he observed Beethoven’s stipulated first repeat but not the second, thereby distorting the time scale. The slow movement went by so fast, with so little differentiation between its contrasting sections, as to trivialize its sublime impact. Before the finale, MTT went through some kind of ludicrous “now get this” motion on the podium, and then delivered nothing really worth the getting. The vocal forces were a mixed blessing. Eric Owens sang his exhortation mostly off key; a helicopter wiped out all of Jessica Rivera’s soprano solo later on; Philippe Castagner’s tenor solo was the evening’s distinguishing moment . . .

click to enlarge SFSs MTT: Now get a load of this. (Courtesy L.A. Phil)
  • SFSs MTT: Now get a load of this. (Courtesy L.A. Phil)

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That, and some minor but attractive bits of Beethoveniana that MTT had dug up to fill out the program: stuff that the composer had churned out to keep the pot boiling in between his more substantial endeavors. Actually, some of Beethoven’s music for the August von Kotzebue drama King Stephen, which began the evening, is interesting as a sketchpad for tunes in the Ninth Symphony; other sections are interesting as proof that he could craft a ho-hum tune along with the rest of the Viennese tune spinners. And one little piece called Bundeslied, for singers and winds, is proof that Beethoven could dash off an authentic four-minute charmer better than the rest of them, and that MTT’s skill as a digger-outer is beyond challenge.

Someday the clouds will part around the name and achievements of Leonard Bernstein, and music like the Symphonic (why that?) Dances From West Side Story will probably figure among the genuine works of his genius, pushing the pretentious symphonies, choral works and other overreachings into deserved obscurity. These splendid, energy-laden Danceswill, by that token, be removed from the purview of symphony orchestras, and restored to the realm of the smaller, theater-size bands who can do them better justice than all the noise MTT stirred up the other night.

There followed Aaron Copland’s turn: six (seven with the encore) of his wonderfully flavorsome settings of old American songs, rich, rugged music sung by Thomas Hampson, who owns them for this generation (pace Marilyn Horne). Then came more Copland, the quiet, reverent, deeply patriotic Lincoln Portrait that once, nevertheless, got banned by our nation as “lefty” (at the 1953 Eisenhower inaugural). Gore Vidal was the reader, an eloquent and significant choice. Seated in his wheelchair, the grand old hell-raiser rose to the occasion with a delivery of Lincoln’s words pointed and meaningful. At the end, he stood and walked off. MTT followed, not on water.

The Man Who Loved Mozart

The video of Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute seems to be hard to find these days; surely a memorial reissue is mandatory. Among the hundreds of opera tapes and DVDs now at hand, this one stands magically apart, an operatic film purposely made, not just shot from the wings, about a performance by people, totally absorbed in and in love with their work, finding their place during the course of an excellent performance of Mozart’s enchanted and enchanting play-with-music. The performing space is part of the magic: Sweden’s little Drottningholm Theater, the size and shape of spaces Mozart himself knew. Never mind that the theater was taken apart and reconstructed for the filmmakers; never mind all the other artifices, including the fact that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, which we usually hear as The Magic Flute, is here given in Swedish. The real music is still present, where it matters. Above all, this is a filming of Mozart’s work that also, with consummate ease, becomes a document of an audience having a wonderful time there, from the delighted face of the little girl (Bergman’s daughter) during the overture to the occasional backstage glances as the camera tiptoes around the theater while the magic unfolds onstage. It becomes a film of how we would like to see an opera someday, as a disembodied spirit freely roaming — through the theater, through the stage, through the mingled souls of everyone involved — only they won’t let us. Lucky Mr. Bergman.

Smiles of a Summer Night is Bergman’s Così Fan Tutte: the game playing, the cynicism, the superior wisdom of the social inferiors, the awareness at the end that those final matchups aren’t really going to work. (Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, are even more careful than Bergman to leave this point unresolved, to the continued bemusement of two centuries of opera directors.) Bergman adorns his plot with more characters than the opera’s six, but the parallels are inescapable. Both works are, unto themselves, perfect.

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