How Some Birds Changed Sibelius and My Life
Those of you who have been following this page for any length of time, and are easily shocked, are advised to direct your gaze elsewhere this week, because my mood, which no amount of medication in my well-stocked cabinet is able to divert, seems irrevocably fastened on an obsession to break out in praise of — if you’re ready — Jean Sibelius. That dour Finn, and his equally dour music, turn up frequently around here as matter for excoriation; so, especially, does his Violin Concerto, dourest of all. Yet that very work was on at the Hollywood Bowl a week ago; I found the performance magnificent, the setting more so, and perhaps the circumstances also contributed. All I know is that it was one of the best events I have experienced at the Bowl, going back to . . . well, how about Giulini and Perlman playing the Brahms Concerto (another work I am sometimes given to deplore) in, I think, 1982.
My box mate at last week’s concert was a smart young writer, the broadening of whose horizons I have made a summer project of my own, and let me state right away that there is no better way to enhance your own involvement with an experience — music, food, a Dodger game — than to go with someone who asks questions and really wants to know. “What is a concerto?” my friend asked at the start, and, boy oh boy, did the answer fall into our laps as if fashioned by the gods. That wispy gray nagging tune for solo violin, not stumbling as it usually does, awash in a thin orchestral gruel, made its way into our awareness this time on a cloud of bird song, the happy populace of Cahuenga Pass making tidy for the night and sharing its magic with the world. What a radiant moment! It seemed to ordain a different way of hearing the entire work — all 30 minutes of up-and-down strained melody following strained melody in no logical sequence, here a cute effect for the bassoons, there a vulgarity for brass — as though, this once, some great and happy intelligence had shaped a design. And that, my friend, is a concerto.
Nikolaj Znaider was the soloist — born in Denmark to Polish-Israeli parentage — and he delivered a phenomenal performance, technically flawless and so splendidly up-front that you stopped listening to technique and began listening for musical matters. From the awesome repertory list in his biography, he apparently knows something about these matters as well, and he’s welcome to play them in our back yard at any time. Sir Andrew Davis, the week’s Philharmonic guest conductor, obviously knows his way around the Sibelius landscape — and also around the ersatz-Sibelius sound of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, which filled in the rest of the program like so much packing straw.
Two nights previous, one of the Bowl’s small stock of “Classical Tuesdays” had been squandered on a ragtag dance program: 14 members of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago wandering through Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and a gathering of single movements by Bach. I must first register my predilections: I object to music being used (as in bad jokes to Mozart’s magisterial symphony) as opposed to danced to (as in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, which, along with Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations, is the only danced Bach I truly admire). I also object to the kind of disrespect that thinks it’s perfectly swell to take single movements, willy-nilly, out of Bach concertos and keyboard suites and string them together as dance suites. You still hear the music, but the jolt of the segue to the haunting D-minor adagio of the First “Brandenburg” Concerto after parts of the E-flat Cello Suite is something neither Bach nor I should be asked to endure; it stands for a lousy attitude toward the music, especially on one of the few nights in the Bowl season that are supposed to be about music.
You would think, furthermore, that by the third season of those big video screens at the Bowl, they would have begun to make sense. I suspect that there is not as yet anything in the Bowl or the Philharmonic organization like a real production staff in charge of making sense out of all that obviously expensive equipment bunched up at the front of the property: the screens, the speakers, whatever. The sound is greatly improved, by the way. Whatever those big green boxes are down front, they have dealt properly with the ridiculous echo that plagued the orchestral sound in the past couple of years, and the sound from where I sit — about halfway back — is that of an extremely good home hi-fi, and I don’t expect an outdoor installation will ever get better than that.
But the video screens are just plain goddamn wasted. The dancers the other night were mostly dark shadows blended in among the orchestral players, and the coordination — the right player at the right time — is only minimally better than before. And it is absolutely absurd that on a night with singing or speech — the Tosca, the Beethoven Ninth finale and the arias in Amadeus — there are no visual texts. That lack all but concedes the day to the objections to the whole idea of Bowl concerts frequently raised, with what I detect lately as a noticeable crescendo, by my friend and colleague Mark Swed of the Times.
All told, I think I have a better time at the Bowl than Mark does. He complains about the “picnic obsession,” which is a matter to complain about to Patina’s management (or bring your own food, which I do, and which is more fun anyhow). He invokes that old bugbear “musical insignificance,” and he’s dead on; hire Leonard Slatkin if you must, as summertime top conductor, but set him loose on significant American music, which is his specialty, not just the tidbits of his September 12 program. Mark cites the comparison with Tanglewood, where people drive 150 miles (from New York or Boston) to the concerts and therefore know how to behave when they get there. I love Tanglewood too, but also remember a lot of summer music in New York’s Lewisohn Stadium, which was a short subway ride and played to the proles. I loved the sight of 8,700 people at the Bowl earlier last month, listening to Tosca and picking up some fascinating insights from John Mauceri’s spoken lead-ins. One more step, treating the opera as if there were words on a screen to go with the music on the stage, would have raised the whole evening to a state of musical significance. Tosca, which is also no particular love object in my books, deserved that much at least.?
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