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Not With a Bang but a Whisper

The quiet blessing that ends Mahler’s Fourth Symphony receded into silence, and the Philharmonic’s season was over. The last weeks were glorious. A few days earlier, in the final concert of the orchestra’s “Green Umbrella” series, splendidly dispatched by Markus Stenz (who had led the Kurtág Stele with the full Philharmonic the week before), there had been glowing, grinning, glinting new noises from the often big and bad — but this time benevolent — Pierre Boulez, apparently turned mellow in the process of arriving at 75. (I know the feeling.) Then came Mitsuko Uchida in a Philharmonic-sponsored solo concert, drawing her own kind of magic from the piano, earthbound only at the moment when, among the divine whispers of ethereal Chopin, there came the ghastly clangor of not one but two summoning cell phones. (Has anyone considered issuing firearms to ushers?) And then came Sir (must I?) Simon Rattle, once boy prodigy, now world master, drawing from the Philharmonic and a band of helpful singing angels noises sublime and profound like nothing heard since — well, since Esa-Pekka Salonen began his sabbatical.

Like many of his recent works, Boulez’s sur Incises builds upon (sur) the 1994 piano piece Incises. Its performing space, a stage with three harps fronting three pianos, with three gatherings of percussion across the back wall, took your breath away even before the music started. You had to wonder: Can anything be more beautiful than this visual setting? The music answered: Yes, something can. The music swirls and swoops: vibrant and pulsating here, dreamlike there. You think back to the obsessive percussive clatter of the Mallarmé settings, of the Répons that fills vast spaces like an erupting volcano; this new work has all those colors, but also something more: charm, ease, the urge to ingratiate that must signal a new Boulez. Earlier on the program there was music by Brett Dean, Australian composer and violist, performing a solo piece and beaming at his Carlo led by Stenz, a collage of sampled fragments of vocal lines culled from the eminent Renaissance composer/murderer Carlo Gesualdo imaginatively worked into a shifting, disturbing contemporary context. I wanted to hold on to it for more than merely an intermission’s length, but the Boulez swept all before it.

There’s nobody quite like Uchida anymore (Martha Argerich perhaps excepted), a musician miraculously able to convey a love of what she’s doing in a way that seems to unite serenity and hysteria. I’d never heard her Chopin before; there’s nothing on disc, at least not currently. I couldn’t imagine her at home among the waltzes or the nocturnes, but I’d give a lot to hear her taking on the B-flat minor Scherzo. She tore into the Sonata in B-flat minor with hurricane force, stupendous but amazingly in control; the finale, which is nothing but hot wind, left me gasping. Yet the crown of this extraordinary performance was the serene midsection of the Funeral March, with its one-finger melody like a stream of starlight surrounded by deep, black quiet — until, alas, the cell phone very nearly ruined the moment. Could its owner be the same brute who schedules the helicopters during slow movements at the Hollywood Bowl?

Later on the program came Anton Webern’s Variations: softer, dark points of light in an even darker void; then, in a moment of endearing wisdom, Uchida simply segued into the B-minor Adagio, darkest and most mysterious of all of Mozart’s piano works. Schubert’s D-major Sonata filled the second half; it, too, is a mysterious piece, with its first movement an almost- successful homage to the Beethoven “Hammerklavier” and its slow movement inflamed with urgent passions that stop just short of words. For dessert there was Bach and another dab of Mozart, and I left with the sense that Uchida had, all evening, expressed not only her happiness in being privileged to play the piano so well, but her respect for the intelligence of her listeners. Back home I revisited the Philips video of Uchida explaining, then performing, six Debussy Etudes: the warmest, wisest capturing of the art and the joy of music making that I know. I wish I knew her, but think I do.

Childhood, it has often been noted, is an excellence wasted upon the young. Yet the meeting of minds that produced L’Enfant et les Sortilèges — the music of Maurice Ravel, the fantasy and the words of Colette — hands off the essence of childhood as if to share the elixir of youthfulness with hearers of any age. Just the wonder of Ravel’s orchestra as realized under Rattle’s leadership — the dragonflies in the enchanted garden, the wind sighing through trees, the breath of olden days in the pastorale of the shepherds — had to instill the tears of delight that make us all start life over. The work in concert may have lacked the ultimate magic of, say, the David Hockney staging at the Metropolitan Opera or the Balanchine on video, yet Simon Rattle’s cast on the Philharmonic’s concert stage succeeded remarkably in suggesting the visions in the work. (Ravel had expressed the hope that Walt Disney would take it up — the fresh, lively Disney, that is, of the early 1930s.)

Rinat Shaham, whose Cherubino I had adored in Opera Pacific’s Figaro, carried that same rich and bubbling spirit as Ravel’s Child; a dream cast also included Marietta Simpson as the Mother and the Teacup, Christine Brandes dispensing coloratura enchantment as the Fire and the Nightingale, Cynthia Clarey as the White Cat, and François Le Roux as the amorous Black Cat. I write these words on the eve of Ojai, where this work will be reprised under a new moon and the blessing of starry skies. I only hope the woodpecker is back on his usual sycamore to join in.

The Mahler Fourth was the inspired finale; I can’t think of another work that could sound so right after L’Enfant. Rattle moves toward coronation as the new century’s first great conductor of Mahler. Like Salonen, he sees the Fourth whole and pure; they both observe the extreme tempo flexibilities throughout — metronome changes sometimes every eight bars — and understand how Mahler meant these changes as a way to create a uniquely lithe and supple melodic line. Rattle has, I think, a surer vision of the work’s folksiness: the slides in the strings delicious but ever so slightly obscene, the winds in the scherzo delightfully ill-mannered. Heidi Grant Murphy, the Princess in the Ravel, was the angelic visionary in the fourth movement. The orchestral sound throughout the evening was, well, “sublime” will do for starters.