Arnold and Edward, and Their Morning at Disney Hall

Edward is 12, loves the piano and is beginning to take lessons at his school in Mar Vista. Sometimes he comes to my house, when his mother comes to clean, and he picks out tunes on the piano. Arnold is 13, loves basketball and pretends not to care about music. Neither they nor their mom, Mercedes, had ever seen Disney Hall, inside or out, so I remedied that with some tickets to last Saturday's Toyota Symphonies for Youth program. We got there early, and you could tell from the way the two boys were craning their necks, out on Grand Avenue, taking in the outlines of Frank Gehry's design, that basketball had fallen to a momentary second importance. Actually, blase Arnold confessed that he had written a school paper on Gehry's most illustrious buildings, but he couldn't remember which.

Tim Norris

Just before the concert

At security, we were met by Adam Crane, the Philharmonic's intrepid PR director, barely recovered from the stressful routines of the bigtime press conference of two days before — Esa-Pekka's final-season announcement and the concomitant freeloaders' lunch. What keeps him nourished, Adam told me as we wandered through the backstage labyrinth, is the stimulus of gigs like this morning's: escorting juvenile first-timers through the hall, and basking in their wonderment. Veteran Philharmonickers stopped by to chat with the kids about the mysteries of their art: bassist Richard D. Kelley, cellists Danny Rothmuller and Ben Hong, hornist Brian Drake, and Perry Dreiman, master of the Big Bang. Then came the Magic Door. It gets me every time: the moment in the guided tour when Adam opens the door from the backstage turmoil to the radiantly lit, eerily silent Hall itself, and I too become a juvenile first-timer, time and again.

The Toyota-backed youth concerts are an active and admirable series, too little noticed, especially since they represent a major expanse in the careers of the orchestra's assistant conductors. The audience was near-capacity, and it gave off such waves of delight that this must needs be something of an outsider's report. This week's docket consisted of a curious bit of entertainment whose off-putting title, The Composer Is Dead, was the worst of it. The composer did, indeed, arrive in a coffin, announced by a florid epitaph sung, keened and, you might say, flounced by one Bennett Schneider, to the intent of fingering the true murderer within the orchestral ranks. Section by section, the orchestra members denied involvement — a kind of "Young Person's Guilt to the Orchestra" — with the finger finally resting, to nobody's surprise, on the day's actual conductor, the sturdy and certainly blameless Lionel Bringuier, Oh, yes, the author of the accusing text was none other than Daniel Handler, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket. San Francisco's Nathaniel Stookey seems to have had no compunction in accepting the blame for the bundle of orchestral blats and wheezes that passed for a score.

It was soon over. Backstage to shake hands with conductor Bringuier and join in a photo op, the lads and Mamacita were models of awestruck diplomacy. We might have lingered, but I had invited the crowd to dim sum. Nobody had ever been to that before, either.

Nevertheless ...

All the above wasn't the weekend's truly major event. Radamisto was. It's interesting to speculate on the effect George Frideric Handel's first major opera must have had on the noblemen of London's Royal Academy back around 1720. The superb performance by Musica Angelica, honest and true to what I think Handel's operas should sound like, was startling enough: the arias with their rhythmic patterns broken up into chunky, irregular patterns; the slithering chromatic lines that even Brahms might acknowledge; the ensembles that break off midway into conflicting actions. On a stage with no scenery, using orchestral forces with only a tenuous claim to "authenticity" — strings with modern bowing except for one six-stringed bass to add weight, an electric harmonium in lieu of organ — Martin Haselbock still drew from his ensemble a powerful and convincing argument for the dramatic power resident in this amazing repertory, much of which still awaits proper and intelligent rediscovery. If this was Handel Opera No. 1 in Musica Angelica's agenda, to suggest something in the way of a series, count this as one approving vote.

The real magic of the performance lay in the singing ensemble, a group astonishingly able to cope with the vocal divisions in this extraordinarily tricky music in a manner ranging from excellent to supernatural. ("Divisions" is/are the process of singing two, four or even eight notes on a single musical beat, and it is the life-throb of bel canto virtuosity, from Handel's time through early Verdi. These folks, all seven principals, had it down pat.) Beyond that, there was further astonishment in the Radamisto of the Spanish countertenor Jordi Domenech, busy in European houses but here making his American debut: a singer of greater range and power than any countertenor in my memory, tall and burly, somewhat burly also in tone but a genuinely exciting young singer. Among other cast members, only soprano Elissa Johnston has sung here, as soloist with most of our local orchestras. An impressively loud baritone named Florian Boesch actually blew his voice out of whack at the end of his big-bad-menacing aria; it could happen to anyone, and Herr Boesch has a voice I'd like to hear as Sarastro someday. At the other end of the scale, a dear small bundle of Celine Ricci scored some square hits on high notes I didn't even know were there.

What is Radamisto about? Better not ask; I started in on the synopsis, and got to where "Zenobia, exhausted and desperate, begs her husband to kill her so she will not fall into Tiridates' hands. He is reluctant, and fails to strike an effective blow and she throws herself into the river ..." To Musica Angelica's credit, they provided a nicely printed libretto, and dimmed the lighting at Schoenberg Hall only slightly so we could read along. That's what's known as managerial intelligence. Philharmonic management, please note.

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