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Maestro Gatti Takes the Fifth

Photo by Ludwig Schirmer

Tchaikovsky at Royce Hall, Schumann at Disney: After three weeks of Berlioz’s hectoring, perhaps it was time to ride the warhorses for a couple of nights. Last week they ran sleek and handsome.

It’s easy enough, in my line of work, to face an evening’s gig with an inevitable “oh no, not the Tchaikovsky Fifth again” attitude. Hereabouts, the Fifth is a hardy perennial, indoors at the Music Center, outdoors at the Bowl. I’ve written a whole book on the Fifth (HarperCollins, out of print here, published also in Taiwan), and I didn’t think there was anything new for me to learn about it. At Royce, Daniele Gatti and London’s Royal Philharmonic proved me wrong. His zippy tempos, achieved by his mostly young players at no loss of clarity, gave the first movement a buoyancy I’d seldom if ever heard before; his marshaling of lights and shadows in the waltz movement seemed to evoke real swans this once. Best yet, the hornist in the slow movement achieved his famously romantic solo without the smarmy vibrato that I always believed was built into that dreaded moment, and turned it instead into something close to music.

Gatti is 42. He guest-conducted our own Philharmonic in 1991. From the evidence of this program — which he had to trundle around to three other Southern California venues before arriving here — and from the recording on Harmonia Mundi, he has built one of London’s “other” orchestras into a much-improved ensemble. His beat is strong and clear; it’s obvious that his motions are for the orchestra, not the audience. Gatti’s program at Royce began with a first-rate Prokofiev “Classical,” the strings like gossamer, the winds all a-twinkle and the pacing bright and bouncy. Midway, and best of all, came an absolutely splendid reading of the Mozart 40th. Here, again, is music I think I know backwards and forwards and every way in between; yet I found myself astonished and bolt upright at the gorgeous wind writing in the trio of the minuet that had somehow passed me by a couple of thousand times before. I liked that Gatti seats the orchestra in the classic manner, with the second violins down front on the conductor’s right and the basses up in back. At Royce, at least, it made for a stronger, more forward sound. (It did at Disney the next night, too, in fact, when guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi also seated the Los Angeles Philharmonic that same way for another “warhorses” program.)

One sour note, or two, however, may be in order. The program booklet for Gatti’s concert, while reasonably informative about the music itself, lacked the customary courtesy of a list of orchestra personnel, leaving unstated the fact that the horn soloist in the Tchaikovsky was John Bimson, or that Tim Watts and Leila Ward played the exquisite oboe duet in the Mozart. Programs by traveling orchestras invariably provide these lists, and the booklet for the same concert did so when the Royal Philharmonic played in Orange County the week before. At Royce, however, last month’s concert by John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir went on unaccompanied by the customary text sheet, nor was there a text provided for the Bach Passion According to St. John when the Suzuki Ensemble from Japan performed it there last season.

All of this suggests that somewhere in the management of UCLA Live there is a decline of caring about the integrity of the presentation of serious music, a suspicion supported by a serious tapering off in the number of serious musical events this season compared to previous years. From my limited knowledge of demographics, it seems to me that the opposite should be true. After the Gatti concert I approached David Sefton, the head of UCLA Live, and I think that perhaps the word “shame” passed my lips. Mr. Sefton, not widely known as a charmer, waxed hissy. “Do you know that it cost me 180,000 fuckin’ dollars to bring those people over . . .” Those words having explained the situation to his satisfaction, if not to mine, I took my leave.

 

Christoph von Dohnányi tried hard and nobly to make Schumann’s Second Symphony lovable in his guest stint with the Philharmonic, and came as close as anyone can. It just won’t work. The opening fanfares, the impact of trumpets smudged by trombones, are already wrong; the first movement seems to consist of balloons inflating and running out of air. A pretty scherzo, a kind of Mendelssohnian outtake, puffs along merrily. Then comes that slow movement, the apotheosis of droop, and the grand bravado of the finale that backs our hapless composer into a corner out of which he bravely marches amid a battalion of tin soldiers. I hear 10 minutes of interesting music in this Second Symphony, which even the eloquence of Dohnányi’s presentation, the sleek elegance of the strings, the nicely balanced sparkle of the winds, could not prolong into the 40 minutes it demanded of my time.

It’s good to know that Dohnányi, whose 20-year contract with the Cleveland Orchestra precluded his guest appearances with other American orchestras, is finally on the loose. As a Philharmonic welcome guest, much admired by the players, according to my private grapevine, he could provide a valuable connection with a Central European repertory that may not reside entirely within Salonen’s orbit. On last week’s program he also led a beautiful, dark reading of Mozart’s “other” G-minor Symphony (No. 25), with its slow movement that went by like a passing, scented cloud, and a serious Til Eulenspiegel somewhat low on jokes and, therefore, above average, musically responsible. Even among the warhorses, it doesn’t hurt to do a little thinking now and then.


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