Simon Says, Simon

Photo by Alan Wood

“ISN’T THIS A DREADFUL orchestra?” said Simon Rattle, curly-topped, dimpled, transfixingly blue-eyed — not yet “Sir” — over cups at a downtown coffee den. The year was 1981, and he had just been made principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; a year before, he had taken over the City of Birmingham Orchestra, with which, he promised, he would wipe the Los Angeles, and most other orchestras, off the map. I teased him about being stuck with an orchestra in the British boonies, and he flew into a rage. “You don’t know anything, do you?”

He calmed down, and we discussed the road ahead of him. Since he had grown up as a percussionist, and only recently come to conducting, there were still great chunks of the symphonic repertory he didn’t know, including many of the Beethoven symphonies. Even so, he had already made a splash back home with recordings of gritty contemporary British works that nobody else wanted to touch: symphonies by Peter Maxwell Davies, for example. He knew, about himself, that he was a quick study. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone quite so justifiably self-confident as the very young (26) Simon Rattle that afternoon.

Ernest Fleischmann, an absolute genius at spotting and grabbing raw talent, had fixed his eye on Simon Rattle when the 21-year-old whizbang had come to the Hollywood Bowl leading an orchestra of British schoolkids back in ’76. After 1981, despite Rattle’s professed contempt for the local players, his name showed up frequently on the Philharmonic schedule, joined a couple of years later by another Fleischmann acquisition, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Rattle was mentioned now and then as the logical successor to Carlo Maria Giulini after that great man’s retirement in 1985, but Rattle knew what he was doing. He returned to Birmingham, wangled a great new concert hall out of the city, and filled it with a world-class, no-longer-boonie orchestra.

And look at him now. Look at him, on the podium that once belonged to Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan. Look at him, ensconced in the concert hall — Berlin’s Philharmonie — whose outlines and acoustic design the Los Angeles planners freely admit to have cribbed from in planning our own great new venue. Look at him this past weekend, with the honorific “Sir” now affixed, escorting his very own Berlin Philharmonic through two programs of music-making eloquent, exquisite, enterprising and sometimes still whizbang, before sellout crowds at the highest ticket price ($17 o5) of any Disney Hall event (except for the black-tie galas, of course) this season.

Was it worth the price? You betcha! Just that delicate, floating pianissimo that began Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta last Friday night was worth the price, even with the cruel punctuation from the uncontrolled cougher in, I would guess, M-130 of the Upper Orchestra (yes, the acoustics are that good). That performance — the one on the stage, that is — was pure virtuosity, every contrapuntal line etched in exact detail, the exuberant propulsion of the music in beautiful balance. The Schubert Ninth suffered somewhat from that same exuberance, most of all from an excess of roogie-roogie from the trombones. My way of hearing that noble, majestic music is from the Berlin Philharmonic of another era — December 1951, in Berlin’s Church of Jesus Christ, under Furtwängler (still on D.G.); eheu, fugaces labuntur anni.

Saturday afternoon’s concert was more of the same: its money’s worth in even more glowing measure. A Haydn symphony began it (No. 88, full of jokes and full of love); Debussy’s La Mer ended it, its extroverted gorgeousness a magic that you could touch. Both performances, I suspect, will remain my way of hearing those two works for quite some time. In the middle there was new music by France’s Henri Dutilleux, composed for Rattle and the orchestra (and for Dawn Upshaw, who, being indisposed, was handsomely replaced by Valdine Anderson). The music, Correspondances, was a series of settings of mystical texts by letter-writers (among them Rilke, van Gogh, Solzhenitsyn) lasting about 20 minutes. I have had trouble with Dutilleux’s music in the past, and did so again; I respect his 87 years, but find nothing from them that speaks to me; the new songs come across in many shades of gray — so gray, in fact, that the Sibelius Seventh Symphony, the next work on the program, simply throbbed with color. Coals to Newcastle: Rattle performing Sibelius in Salonen precincts did seem to find greater warmth in the music, without necessarily improving the result.

 

LATER THAT DAY, across the street at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and at a top ticket 5 bucks less than for the Berlin, the Los Angeles Opera came up with a Lucia di Lammermoor respectable at all times and sometimes genuinely splendid. The star is Anna Netrebko, the Russian coloratura soprano who has been eating up opera houses on both coasts since her San Francisco Opera debut in 1995. She is wondrous to look at (“Audrey Hepburn with a voice,” reads one spumaceous e-mail), and generates PR the way Vesuvius generates lava (did you know she once washed floors for a living?); better yet, she sang a first-rate Lucia, tragic in the tragic moments, horrifying in the mad moments, stupendous in the high-E moments. Surrounding her was a production of above-average resource both musical and dramatic, with sure and affectionate pacing from veteran conductor Julius Rudel and an intelligent frame for the action created by Marthe Keller. Vitalij Kowaljow is the resonant, sympathetic Raimondo; Jose Bros the somewhat reedy Edgardo who drew the loudest cheers for some reason. I have a theory: Tenors have the largest families.

Yes, I had a couple of reservations. Lucia is part of a repertory that has become fair game for music editors, who hide behind a pretense of scholarly authenticity with one hand, and go snip snip snip with the other: a second stanza dropped here, a repeat or a cadence formula dropped there. Just in Lucia’s opening scene, the complex of arias that proceeds from “Regnava Nel Silenzio” and ends with the duet with Edgardo that is on every Italian barrel-organ, I kept hearing the snip of the editor’s scissors. The more this repertory becomes known — through enlightened performances and dozens of recordings — the more audible, and therefore the more painful, these minor surgeries become. All told, they don’t remove more than, say, 10 minutes from the complete score, yet you feel their pain, their drip, drip . . .


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