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Conduct Becoming

Between the solemn ritual of Kurt Masur's Beethoven, with his visiting New York Philharmonic at Royce Hall, and the giddy flamboyance of Junichi Hirokami's Rachmaninoff, with the local gang at the Music Center, the choice is easy as to which event honored the greater achievement of Western civilization. As to which one afforded me the greater enjoyment, however, that is another story.

Why would anyone dream up the cockeyed idea of reviving Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony? The Second is dreary enough, but it at least generated one or two workable tunes for the pop guys. (Eric Carmen, wasn't it?) The Third is shorter (which is tantamount to reporting that Pismo Beach now has one fewer clam), has no tunes at all, but continually behaves as if it did. I've never understood why Rachmaninoff, who lived and died in Beverly Hills, didn't make it as a movie composer until after his death. There's a scenario implicit in this Third Symphony -- composed in 1936, when Steiner, Korngold et al. were riding high in the studios -- which could have become the worst and most profitable movie ever made.

None of this is meant to detract in any way, however, from the sensational triumph scored by Hirokami on the Music Center podium last week. If the work has any use, it can at least serve as a showcase for a virtuoso conductor, and the 40-year-old, approximately 5-foot-0 Hirokami is certainly that. He had knocked my socks off with symphonies of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1996, and I might as well exhume some of my words at that time: "exciting music-making, poised, the energy streaming ferociously . . . superb balance between meticulous orchestral detail and momentum. The left arm sweeping across the orchestra like a gigantic scythe, a nicely choreographed leap now and then (but no more often than now and then) to drive home a salient point." All that happened again here last week, and it made the matter of the music's gross inferiority almost beside the point. One gesture I will remember always: the way Hirokami held up his left hand at the end of the slow movement, slowly closing his fist as the music oozed into silence. You can play all the discs in the world on your home stereo, but for moments like that you have to be there. (And why weren't you? The crowd on Friday night was pathetically small.)

Toru Takemitsu's Twill by Twilight began the program with its iridescent waves of legato, surging sound composed in memory of Morton Feldman, creator of non-legato plinks, plonks and silences: a Japanese seascape on a Monet canvas, gorgeous whatever the language. Concertmaster Alexander Treger was soloist in Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto -- rhapsodic, rough, Russian, with orchestral details that I had never before noticed (the sound of strings over a bass drum) brought out in Hirokami's collaboration.

Any orchestra sounds better in Royce Hall than at the Music Center; that goes some of the distance to explain the ecstasy that engulfed the capacity crowd at UCLA's handsome auditorium as Kurt Masur led the New Yorkers through hoops and over hurdles. And if these assembled forces had been granted the time, as visiting orchestras never are, to try out the hall's acoustic singularities -- to make the proper adjustments, for example, of how loud loud can be without shattering eardrums out front -- their one-night stand among us might have taken on a few musical attributes to enhance the evening's display of muscle stretching. The musical high-water mark was, in fact, not the two fifth symphonies listed, but the final encore, a wingding version of the old ragtime standard "Good 'n' Plenty" by four of the brass players, with Masur beaming approval from the side.

The New York Philharmonic is the country's most famous orchestra, and its most peculiar. It has never had its own personality, as have the orchestras in Boston or Philadelphia in their glory days. It has always been a kind of machine, superbly functional at various times in its leadership history, wheezy and leaky at others. Under Masur the machine roars and purrs at Mach 4; since it did not do this under his predecessor, the woebegone Zubin, the improvement has made Masur seem like a savior, and a finer interpretive musician than he actually is. I found his Beethoven Fifth merely correct, interesting for its taking a rarely observed repeat in the third movement -- as did Pierre Boulez with the orchestra in a 1960s recording about which the less said the better -- but nothing much otherwise. And the Shostakovich Fifth under Masur, which both he and his smooth-functioning press machine have proclaimed his superspecialty, lacked the cumulative power that I hear in, for a supreme example, my cherished tape of Kurt Sanderling's performance with our own Philharmonic from a distant and happy time.

The "Song to the Moon" from Dvorák's Rusalka was the third of five encores (O generous, benevolent soul!) that sent the enraptured crowd homeward at Renée Fleming's Music Center recital the previous Wednesday. Last week I noted her singing of this aria as the most beautiful recorded sound of 1998; now we have had it as the most beautiful live sound, beyond possible challenge, of 1999. From any standpoint -- beauty of voice, wisdom in its use, charm of stage presence, intelligence and imagination in program planning -- Fleming's first-ever local appearance proclaimed an event as close to perfection as never mind.

Fleming's recent London disc, Grammy-nominated last week, is properly titled The Beautiful Voice, but "beautiful" doesn't say it all. What I found most astounding about her recital here was the range of her insights, her uncanny ability to find the exact emotional shading for a key moment -- the unhinging of Gretchen's reason on the word Kuss as she spins out her memories in Schubert's marvelous song, the slinky insinuations in Duke Ellington's "Do Nuthin' Till You Hear From Me," the woodland mists around a bit of Verlaine's poetic imagery as conjured in a Debussy song, the whipped-cream and bratwurst in a Richard Strauss banality.

Along with Schubert's sublime reactions to Goethe's poetry, Fleming let us smile forgivingly at the same texts set by lesser hands: Glinka's "Gretchen" and Mendelssohn's "Suleika." Throughout the evening she insisted that her pianist, Helen Yorke, share the stage bows out front, rather than the usual mousy nod from the piano bench -- an awareness, seldom encountered, of the partnership that the magical repertory of the art song truly entails.

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