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Second Wind, First String

Well, that was more like it. Two nights of Paul Daniel‘s conducting at the Hollywood Bowl last week were enough to bring the Philharmonic out of its opening-week funk, back to the major orchestra it can be under the right breezes.

Orchestras are tricky beasts. Gatherings as they are of highly skilled and well-paid professionals, they represent the ironic image of a well-oiled machine constantly on the brink of breakdown -- of mutiny, even. Put someone on the podium who, however skilled in the fine art of relating to the public and radiating unchallengeable mastery over certain corners of the repertory, fails to interest the players in the works on their music stands, and the finest orchestra money can buy will still play like the sophomore class at Pinole High. Some few orchestras -- in Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam and, not so long ago, Cleveland -- have become so famous for the quality of their playing that they will maintain that standard even with the board chairman’s brother-in-law on the podium. Most, however, will not, and even the best of them can, once the leash goes slack, sound the way the Philharmonic did under Leonard Slatkin two weeks ago.

It may be that the crisp, meticulous, vivid playing the Philharmonic gave Paul Daniel, starting with Mozart‘s Figaro overture on the first of his two concerts last week, was partially intended to prove a point; in any case, it was a balm for the ears. Daniel is 42; he’s music director of London‘s lively English National Opera, where he recently conducted a much-praised production of John Adams’ Nixon in China. Tall and slender, with arms that seem to encompass the whole Bowl stage, he is great fun to watch. Robert Levin was soloist on the first night, in Mozart‘s astonishing C-major Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503), a fine, inventive performance that turned the vastness of the Bowl, on a balmy night, with the Big Dipper clearly in view overhead, into a setting that was exactly the right size for Mozart. (That would, of course, make it the wrong size for Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, which ensued, but actually there is no place on Earth, only in the netherworld, suitable for that excruciating work.)

”Astonishing“? You can say that, of course, about any of the dozen or so piano concertos Mozart produced during his last 10 years. K. 503 comes late in that series, when Mozart‘s works in that form had become so challenging and subtle for Vienna’s frivolous tastes -- the heartbreaking slow movement of the A-major, K. 488, for example, or the stern drama of the C-minor, K. 491 -- that audiences had begun to dwindle. Just the opening of K. 503 is a step forward: the blocky, C-major, festive opening chords followed by the dark shadows of a minor-mode scurrying in the strings. That dichotomy, between brilliant and somber, major and minor, dominates throughout; I get the picture of a huge statue that weeps. And that magical, unexpected moment in the finale, the deeply comforting F-major tune that comes out of nowhere and then vanishes, is in a sense a resolution for the entire work. It always gives me the shivers. What I particularly admire about Levin‘s way with Mozart is the mix he has achieved of ”authentic“ performance practice -- improvised embellishments to enhance the melodic line and the sense he projects that a cadenza can actually be a creative venture -- and a recognition that the beauty of the music transcends the boundaries of its time.

Ursula Oppens was the soloist two nights later, not in the craggy contemporary piano repertory that is her acclaimed specialty -- she is the East Coast’s Gloria Cheng and Vicki Ray -- but in Beethoven‘s ”Emperor“ Concerto, where she seemed a little less at home: nothing wrong, just not very much right. Again, Daniel and the Philharmonic shared the glory.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra shared the evening. It‘s hard to believe, but this extraordinarily vibrant, rich music from 1943 is the latest large-scale orchestral work of its century to find a permanent place in the repertory. (I can still feel the pressure of Bartok’s handshake backstage at Boston‘s Symphony Hall, at the world premiere.) Daniel’s performance was as fine as any I remember, splendidly attentive to the wonderful details in the music‘s iridescent orchestration, and in balancing the solos within the orchestra -- especially in the first and third movements, which people tend to undervalue -- against the full orchestra. Was the amplification somewhat turned down? From my seat, about halfway back, the orchestral tone seemed exceptionally -- let’s say -- orchestral.

The extraneous roar from air traffic, however, was unusually brutal that night and, as usual, keenly timed to the music‘s softest moments. Also, for what may have been musically the most rewarding program of the summer, the attendance fell below 6,000 for the first time this season.

At the Getty this summer, the evening concerts have been moved indoors to the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, an overdue realization that the outdoor stage was unworkable for reasons climatic and acoustic. Last weekend’s concert was French, tied to Eugene Atget‘s wonderful photographs of turn-of-the-century Paris on view at the Museum. Karen Benjamin, an endearing and resourceful singer, romped her way through French songs -- cabaret, Debussy, what have you, many of them un peu bleu; the L.A. Opera’s Greg (newly ”Gregory“) Fedderly did likewise; Robert Winter played piano, and talked and talked. But that was only half the evening. The other half was a clutch of 19th-century bits -- Saint-Saens, Wagner, Berlioz -- in wind-band arrangements such as might have resounded on Atget‘s streets. But Paris, as any Conservatoire refugee will attest, is the city that makes a fetish of perfect pitch and impeccable bandsmanship. Perpetrators of the kind of wobbly, tentative playing inflicted on a $22-a-ticket audience at the Getty by the UCLA Wind Ensemble would probably have been marched off to the guillotine, and not a moment too soon.

Late-breaking news: The second Getty concert (of three) was an improvement by several thousand percent. Watch this space.

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