I envy anyone his first look at Amsterdam. You step out of Central Station and there is the perfect urban landscape: old buildings in grand array, trolleys in front, everything numbered so that you know exactly where to go. Never mind that it's raining or, at least, damp. That was my Amsterdam arrival, two years ago, and the passion remains. The Concertgebouw, that stuffy, elegant home-away-from-home of a concert hall, all plush and velvet, is a short trolley ride away. Lord, I love that city, and the orchestra that is at home in that building.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has been in Los Angeles before, in 1982 at Ambassador Auditorium of fond memory, where it sounded clean and bright in mostly classical programs under Bernard Haitink. At Disney, 1,000 seats larger, it played louder, darker music for Mariss Jansons — Brahms and Mahler — and everybody loved the rich, deep brass, so different from our own bright, sharply defined sound. (I love them both.) What I found particularly magical was the wind tone. Dutch clarinetists are known for a particularly forthright way of aiming their instruments high, so that a lot of sound comes out — almost like old jazzmen, one friend noted. Since the two programs included Brahms' Second Symphony, Strauss' Don Juan and the Mahler Fifth, there was plenty of chance to hear this particular wind quality. Whatever the case, it made for marvelously lively, in-your-face music making, especially valuable in the case of the Brahms, which does, after all, have its lugubrious passages. On the other hand, the performance of Debussy's La Mer struck me as somewhat beached. Our guys do it better.
The Mahler got to me, most of all. You can, of course, link the Concertgebouw Orchestra all the way back to a tradition of Dutch Mahler performance that includes extreme tempo fluctuations — far more than are printed in the score — and considerable use of that weepy manner of string attack that is now smiled down on as indulgence. There may still be old-timers in the orchestra who played under Willem Mengelberg — who, after all, knew Mahler and conducted in Amsterdam until his banishment in 1945. Recordings exist, some good ones from the late '20s and early '30s with some knockout brass and wind playing, and some poor stuff elsewhere in the orchestra, that at least try to preserve the droopy sliding from note to note in the strings that so charmed your grandma. Janssons will have none of this affectation. He is a strong, straightforward leader with a musical beat to match. Like ours.
His Cup Runneth Over, Also Cracketh
The current Philharmonic program book lists an impressive credential for the conducting career of Itzhak Perlman, to set beside his distinguished stature as one of the greatest of living violinists. His engagement under both hats at Disney Hall last weekend raised some interesting questions, however, concerning the gulf between the phenomenon of extracting any old loud and audience-pleasing sounds from an orchestra in a concert hall by waving a stick at it, thereby eliciting cheers and a standing ovation, and the subtler phenomenon of producing beautiful and balanced sounds relevant to the music under examination. I have unleashed many words of praise toward Mr. Perlman's artistry during our many years within each other's earshot, but I have seldom if ever heard our Philharmonic as ill-used as it was under his baton last Saturday night — the second of the three-concert run, please note, and therefore not to be condoned as a sight-reading session.
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Bach's E-major Violin Concerto began the evening on a high level, with Perlman in his familiar role as soloist, the concerto with the solemn, rhapsodic slow movement and the tricky finale that works out mathematically exact. But then the violin was put away, the baton brought out. Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony ensued, with the orchestra oversize, the string tone coarse and outweighing the winds, allowing none of the airy, small-orchestra twinkle so important (and so lovely) in this music. The Brahms Fourth ended the evening, again with the crowd on its feet — cheering a great violinist's illustrious career but surely not this one unfortunate excursion, with the strings harsh and the winds unbalanced with the texture of ... well, of leftover Brahms. Perhaps even a night of Romantic French organ music, not my favorite noise, would sound good after this ...
And so it did, in the very same concert hall the next night. The first notes that Olivier Latry drew from the Disney Hall organ — an arresting fanfare introducing something or other by a certain Tournemire with just an acid touch in the harmony to identify it as French — nicely cleared all that Brahms from the air.
He began with an assortment of trivial pieces by the French Romantic organists I have deplored in this space more than once — Durufle, Alain, Langlais, that crowd; went on to one more-substantial piece of singular religious hysteria, Messiaen's L'Ascension, and ended with an improvisation of his own that was by all odds the best thing on the program. Someone handed up a sheet of paper with an inscription: something, I gather, from a letter by Messiaen. After a moment's pondering, Latry evolved a twisted theme from that inscription. It grew and grew, reached a climax in about 10 minutes' time, and came to a shapely and elegant, feathery ending. Church organists revel in this kind of trickery; this was one of the best I've heard, certainly better than anything on the printed program. Latry is titular organist at Notre Dame; that's his instrument you hear groaning in that glorious edifice at noon every day — a job, he told the Disney crowd, he performs for glory and no money. I never did understand the economy of that country.