Photo by Greg GormanOPENING NIGHT OF THE CLASSICAL-music series at the Hollywood Bowl -- not to be confused with the "Beatles Music Spectacular Opening Night Gala" of two weeks before, or the "Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular" that filled three nights in between -- offered the members of the press the customary pre-concert spread; it may have been harder to digest than usual, but that had nothing to do with the food. The air of mystery -- generated by the unanswered questions around the Philharmonic's current management crisis brought on by the departure of managing director Willem Wijnbergen under still- undefined circumstances -- was lit up by flashes of rumor: reports, for example, of Willem sightings around town. Barry Sanders, president of the board and every inch the archetypal slick, unflappable CEO, went from table to table with The Speech. All that really matters about the Philharmonic, he proclaimed in so many words, is the music, which, as we would soon hear, is in great shape.
If that's the case, our orchestra is in deeper doo-doo than we've guessed, because the concert -- as much of it as I cared to endure -- was truly awful. The conductor was Hungary's Adam Fischer -- younger brother of Ivan, who had triumphed at the Bowl last summer. Adam had had a stint with the Philharmonic indoors in January 1998 in a program that included his countryman Zoltán Kodály's Háry János Suite that I remember as at least okay. No such luck with the same work this time around, however; the sound was flaccid and colorless, the microphone balances so distorted that the incidental cimbalom obbligatos drowned out everything else, the audience reaction (from a not-bad attendance of just under 10,000) so tepid that it didn't even allow time for Teresa Diamond, the cimbalist or whatever it's called, to take a solo bow. (One audience member familiar from recent years, however, summoned up the proper reaction: our old friend the Cahuenga Pass Skunk, a most noticeable presence. Critics nowadays come in all sizes, shapes and flavors.) The much-touted Sarah Chang noodled her way through the dusty measures of the Bruch Violin Concerto as though the music meant nothing to her (an understandable reaction). At intermission the prospect of an Also Sprach Zarathustra from these performing forces evoked instincts of self-preservation. I got to my car just as KKGO had started a tape from abroad: Schumann's Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic. By the time I reached home, my faith in music had been restored.
Matters improved two nights later, as Fischer and the local forces found considerably more happiness in an all-Mozart program: the two G-minor symphonies -- one early, one late, both masterworks beyond fathoming -- and the divinely beautiful G-major Violin Concerto (this time with a soloist, Julian Rachlin, to whom the music seemed to mean quite a lot), and again with a not-bad crowd (of 7,200). For reasons I don't completely understand, Mozart always sounds better at the Bowl than any of the more often played big-band stuff. The miking was still not right, however; the horns tended to out-shout the rest of the orchestra -- which, however, in these particular symphonies with their stark, intense drama, wasn't all bad. The strings, and most of all the give and take between strings and winds in the slow movements of both works, blended exquisitely into the unusually heavy night air. Alas, there isn't much Mozart on the agenda for the rest of the Bowl season, only one very short symphony.
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THE TIMES RAN A LETTER, SAD AND DIScouraging, on last week's Counterpunch page, wherein a chap from Long Beach deplored the tendency of the Philharmonic to enrage its subscribers by serenading them with music they've never heard before and -- according to the writer, one Brent L. Trafton -- shouldn't have to hear now either. He is up in arms at having to shell out $55 to endure such "atonal experiments" (his words) as Debussy's The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Apparently he has been doing some market research, since he states that this kind of programming has "been building resentment with subscribers." He finds Esa-Pekka Salonen a "lousy conductor" of, among others, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, obviously having been otherwise engaged this past season during the wondrous weeks of the Mozart C-minor Mass and the "Pathétique." His advice to the Philharmonic board is to "put aside the selfish 'interests and needs' of its music director" and install a more comforting old-timey program. What is most depressing in the letter is that Mr. Trafton identifies himself, at 38, as one of the orchestra's youngest subscribers. Oh dear, and I thought all Esa-Pekka had to do was to wait out the demise of all the old fogies on the subscriber list and get down to full-time atonal experimentation.
You could (and should) laugh off letters, except that this one, coming during a time of rumor and uncertainty, could stir up a lot of nut-case support for the wrong reasons. Classical-music organizations survive, if they do at all, despite a proverbially complex tangle of relationships at the top echelons brought on by the nature of the commodity and the high tensions of its practitioners. Even so, it's not easy to surmise the reasons behind so drastic a move as Wijnbergen's departure. His marketing innovations have been expensive, including some very fancy brochures for the Bowl and the 1999-2000 Philharmonic season and his many personnel changes, yet only weeks ago the board voted its confidence in all the new spending. If not money, then, what? The most credible guesswork has some kind of head-on between the visionary Salonen and the market-minded Wijnbergen.
Salonen's visions have to do with updating the balance between the wallowing in the tried and true so cherished by Mr. Trafton and an honorable and friendly attempt to broaden an audience's horizons. He has ventured interestingly into new territory, not only with "atonal experiments" but also with admirable gestures toward film music and the Latino repertory. His enterprise has already elevated the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a place of envy among American orchestras. Yes, ticket sales are somewhat down, as they are worldwide. At a San Francisco Symphony concert last month, I heard an inferior orchestra led by a conductor with a shallow musical grasp; despite this, however, Michael Tilson Thomas' slick, in-your-face manner apparently sells tickets. I'd hate to think that this kind of music making, however sexy, is the only salvation for a symphony orchestra. Salvation here in Los Angeles will surely be helped along once Disney Hall is built, even if the results come only halfway up to the prognostications. Then we can start to do battle with the letter writers.