IT WAS A MONTH FOR SYMPHONIES: Mozart in full glory, two unfamiliar Dvorák delectables, one often-roasted chestnut from the Shostakovich legacy and another more rare -- and, of course, the Nine. Beethoven's inscrutable legacy drew sell out crowds to Costa Mesa's Performing Arts Center; from overheard lobby conversations I would judge that the contingent who came out of love for Beethoven-as-composer just about equaled the Bee- thoven-as-P.C.-icon crowd. On opening night, John Eliot Gardiner and his "Revolutionary and Romantic" Orchestra got through the entire program without a single intrusive between-movements ovation; on the second, when you could expect that the profound mysteries of the "Eroica" and the Fourth symphonies might hold an audience spellbound, there were outbursts of applause at every juncture. (The sad news is that between-movements applause, which in our reverence for Product we hear as intrusions, is actually the "authentic" practice. Respectful or stunned silence is a far more recent -- and, I'm tempted to add, pretentious -- behavior.)
Gardiner, at work in this part of the world for the first time, enjoys a following from recordings, many of which I revere as the best-of-all performances -- Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, the Berlioz Fantastique -- for their wisdom, strength, a certain bravado, and his mostly superb and mostly young orchestra. In the five concerts in Costa Mesa -- sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society, whose programming this season and next suggests an infusion of bravery other organizations might profitably heed -- these qualities were in evidence now and then, except for the "superb young orchestra," which filled the air each night with the bloopers and imbalances probably inevitable in period-instrument ensembles but resounding strangely in a hall where the Vienna Philharmonic once played.
Still, Costa Mesa's Beethoven week had its values. For all the misfortunes in the wind and brass sections, there were the seductive, velvet-and-bronze tones from a string section playing with gut strings and reduced vibrato, turning long melodic lines into a kind of superhuman breathing. For all the chill surrounding Gardiner's conception of Symphonies 4, 6 and 9, there was the hair-raising energy in the "Eroica"'s first-movement drama, and in all of the Seventh. At the Wednesday concert, Gardiner, the orchestra and his Monteverdi Choir put together a demonstration of music that Beethoven might have heard on his way up the mountain: arbitrary in the jiggering of facts now and then, oblivious to the fact that, in the time of triads and neat dominant-to-tonic cadences, all music sounded somewhat alike.
A certain piety pervades the whole concept of historically informed performance on period instruments, of "reinventing what the composer could have heard," stepping gingerly around the hard facts of changed audience perception, concert-hall architecture, and, in Beethoven's case, nearly two centuries of skillfully orchestrated hype under which music turns into an amalgam of masterpiece and product. Did the crowd that whooped and hollered for a good 10 minutes after Saturday's Ninth Symphony react to the wretched execution all evening by horns and winds? Or to Gardiner's straitjacketing conception that sandpapered the fury and desperation of the first movement into bland note spinning and turned the miraculous slow movement into dry wood chips? Or to the perceived wisdom that the Beethoven Nine form a product that defines its own wrapping and, like Everest, merits our adulation Because It's There?
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DVORáK'S NINE LIVE ON A LOWER slope, ensconced among the world's best feel-good music. The Fifth Symphony comes on -- clarinets in a purring arpeggio -- with a vision of fields and forests, oblivious to the tornado that lurks in the finale half an hour later. The Sixth begins with a most ingratiating wet kiss, such as a child on tippy-toes might deliver to a benevolent uncle. Later in his career, as the naïve Dvorák learned of his own genius from the product packagers, a certain stiffness set in; his last two symphonies, for all their grand tunes, move more carefully compared to the ease, the fluency, the unselfconscious repetitions of pretty tunes just because they're pretty, in these earlier works.
The L.A. Philharmonic had never performed the Fifth -- nor, for that matter, have many other orchestras. The neglect is baffling, because the music -- even the long finale, whose bluster demands some condescension -- is gorgeous. Guest-conducted by David Zinman, the Dvorák crowned an evening that had also included Gil Shaham's dazzling sprint through Bartók's Second Violin Concerto -- a neat folk-tinged pairing. The Sixth turned up to charm the daylights out of us at the season's final concert by the Santa Monica Symphony in the acoustical horror of the Civic Auditorium. Sound aside, this orchestra and its free-to-all-comers concerts are a valuable local resource; its conductor, Allen Robert Gross, is particularly adept at leading a not entirely professional assemblage toward a fair facsimile of eloquence. That's just my fancy way of saying that Dvorák's most lovable symphony did its job lovably.
Shostakovich's month with the Philharmonic mingled fabulous and flatulent. Someone at the Philharmonic seems to mistake Mark Wigglesworth's brattiness for talent, since he turns up as guest conductor so often (two separate gigs this season). I do not, and from the sounds of the orchestra -- unbalanced and often tentative in the Shostakovich 10th -- there is little love lost between players and conductor. After many years I am finally learning to like this symphony -- long, powerful, also given to bluster now and then -- but the performance under Wigglesworth, simultaneously sharp-edged and fuzzy, was a setback.
For all the popularity and the hokey biographical detail concocted around the Shostakovich Fifth that turns symphony into product, I have little problem learning to like the work. I had less than usual, in fact, in Sakari Oramo's beautifully thought-out performance with the Phiharmonic: the orchestra responsive and, in the wondrous slow movement, positively sleek; the finale, at a pace considerably brisker than in the legendary Kurt Sanderling performance here 15 or so years ago, an authentic bone-rattler. Oramo, the latest to emerge from Finland's seemingly inexhaustible fund of star-quality musicians, nailed down his credentials with a performance of the Mozart 39th, its magical wind scoring lovingly sprinkled with stardust. I also have a warm spot for guest conductors so little ego-driven that they don't bother to remove their eyeglasses before taking a bow; Oramo's modesty in this regard seemed, in a word, spectacular.