To Boo or Not To Boo
Sellars, Kevin Higa; Grimaud, J. Henry FairFINALLY, THERE WERE SIGNS OF LIFE AT the Hollywood Bowl -- onstage, and in the audience as well. Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to his rightful podium to kick off his three weeks in the Tuesday/Thursday "classical" series that brings the season to a close. His first program was a daredevil affair, made the more so by the visual concept on the big overhead screen concocted by Peter Sellars, who came onstage in his red pajamas before every number to Explain It All in vast sprays of high-flown verbiage just to make sure all 8,000 of us got the point. The music was lively, and so were the performances. The crowd was livelier still; at the end of György Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds, there came a chorus of boos from a gathering of naysayers. That, in turn, energized an answering section of cheering yeasayers. You should have been there; it was like The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 all over again -- and in the proletarian surroundings of the Bowl, where, according to the more cynical among us, nobody listens.
There is a fine art to the elegantly voiced boo, and to the judgment of its appropriate place. Professional critics are assumed to be above the practice, since they can boo to heart's content on the printed page. In 20 years at the Bowl I have been moved to boo only once -- at a Lukas Foss atrocity that subjected some excellent Bach to a garish rewrite -- but I didn't have a writing job of my own at the time. Booing belongs as the proper reaction to presumption, as response to a creative act that oversteps artistic common sense and insults a hearer's intelligence. If I had been in a booing mood that night last week, I would have responded to Sellars' inappropriate take on Scriabin's Prometheus, onto whose color-besotted measures he had spatchcocked his strange choice of visuals: a 1914 black-and-white Edward Curtis documentary of Vancouver Indian rituals. Scriabin himself had specified visuals for this work, projections from a "color organ" he himself designed, with hues wedded to the "spiritual" content of specific notes and harmonies. If this music must be performed at all, a premise I might challenge with a vehemence just short of the full-throated boo, I would far prefer humoring the composer's own view rather than the willful caprice of the madcap (and often, if not this time, startlingly right-on) Peter Sellars.
The booing at the Bowl came not after the Scriabin but after the Ligeti, which had been offered with no visual meddling at all, music I had been longing to hear again since Salonen's first performance here in 1993. (It was slated for release as part of Sony's complete Ligeti series, and even assigned a number -- SK 62317. But that project now appears to be scuttled while Sony busies itself with its Leonard Bernstein repackagings.) The music had first taken shape, writes Paul Griffiths in his excellent Ligeti biography, as the score for a projected comic-strip opera about Oedipus. What strange, magical fantasy is here! Flutes and clarinets in groups of five chortle around a women's chorus with their clouds of made-up syllables; lower instruments act as clockwork. Some sounds are familiar: the buzzing from the other Ligeti works appropriated by Kubrick for 2001. Whether the music belonged in Bowl programming, where mind-stretching experiences are not exactly standard procedure, the joining of music and the balmy evening air of Cahuenga Pass was without seam.
At the end of this dazzling, one-of-a-kind event, there was the Déserts of Edgard Varèse, not quite "the ugliest piece of music ever written" of Sellars' introduction, as if echoes of Scriabin's atrocity were not still lingering, but a curio from the late days of one of music's fearless innovators. Here the visuals -- Bill Viola's desertscapes and mindscapes -- surrounded and exalted the music, smoothed the tentative transitions from orchestral to primitive electronic sounds, turned the whole complex into something far more gratifying than the music itself. At the end there were cheers.
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TWO NIGHTS LATER IT WAS MANAGEment that perpetrated the boo-boo, the harebrained notion to turn video cameras loose on the music -- Salonen conducting the Mahler First Symphony and, with Hélène Grimaud, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto -- and project the performance on the big screen still in place from the previous event. It was a ghastly mistake: cameramen roaming the stage, seldom if ever focusing on the right players in solo passages, repeating over and again certain stock shots, and -- worst of all -- creating a distracting, larger-than-life image on the screen whereby the actual live performance down below became accompaniment to a TV show. Granted, the music at Bowl concerts is amplified and fed into loudspeakers; that still doesn't justify turning a concert into a studio production.
One irony: The notion of projecting concerts onto a TV screen had been advanced by the now-deposed Willem Wijnbergen early in his time here, and then dropped as impractical. Philharmonic people told me after this week's concert that there had been "problems" with the cameras' not being able to reach the right spots, and that the decision to shoot had been made only three days before. A defective commodity, in other words, was knowingly handed off to a live audience, at a $75 top ticket. There are plans under consideration to rethink the process for next summer's concerts, with screens better placed so as not to distract from the live performance. Wouldn't free binoculars be an even better solution?
It was also, by lousy luck, one of the worst evenings this summer for airborne interference. On the screen you could see Grimaud looking up as helicopters hovered again and again to disrupt her concentration. The performance that had begun spacious and profound cannot, in all fairness, be reviewed. Salonen's Mahler managed to outshout the competition at times; it was, I think, a tremendous performance.
Salonen's Mahler has become a very personal conception. He observes quite literally the music's frequent changes of pace and invitations to rubato; it takes getting used to, but it creates a fascinating, stretchy melodic line. Driving home after the concert I heard, via KKGO, Salonen's Mahler Fourth, one of his first Los Angeles recordings. That, too, is remarkable most of all for its flexibility. With no interference aside from a few semis on 101 -- mere whisperers after the massed might of LAPD's helicopter squadrons -- it sounded almost like a performance.
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