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The Catalyst

Carlos Kleiber’s recent passing left no noticeable tremors on the musical landscape. He had suffered, the obituary notices read, from a “long-term illness,” but the world had suffered from his even longer-term absence; his last performances of any consequence were in 1994, although there were scattered appearances (and scattered cancellations as well) in ensuing years. I saw him once, in September 1990, conducting Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in his last American engagement.

Even so, I have always spent a lot of time with Kleiber, and have stepped up the pace in the last few weeks. My laserdisc treasures include Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, a Johann Strauss “New Year’s Concert” with the Vienna Philharmonic in its gold-encrusted Musikvereinsaal, two versions of Der Rosenkavalier and one of Die Fledermaus. Some of these have also appeared on DVD, and all of them should. I also cherish an Otello from La Scala on videotape, many times dubbed but with the sound still clear.

A performance of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony from Vienna is a particular prize. What passes between Kleiber and the orchestra is not so much a matter of master and commander — a Lenny or a Herbie handing down the tablets from On High. It is more a matter of sharing, of a communion among players and conductor with an audience invited to look on. Perhaps other matters have passed between Kleiber and the players beforehand — his rehearsals were famously inaccessible — but what I see in these performances, and love to watch time and again, is this extraordinary oneness of the musicality and the seeming lack of self-serving personal furor in the process of making it happen. There are times when he sets his baton at rest and simply lets his gentle smile do the job.

The furor is there, all right. Through the blurred images on my precious tapes of the La Scala Otello there is a musical storm seething through the house that could send anyone running for cover — with an occasional fleeting view of Kleiber himself, his young (40) face lit with a beatific smile, mouthing the words of the “fuoco di gioia” chorus as a privileged participant. On a bargain-priced Deutsche Grammophon compact disc there is a Beethoven Fifth Symphony from Vienna that will knock your socks off. No matter how many times that surge to the end of the first movement has picked you up by the scruff of the neck and shaken you helpless, this one will do it again, with the electricity turned up to 11. There is a Schubert “Unfinished,” also on DG, whose celestial dying out will leave you shorn of access to words.

Seldom heard, even more rarely seen, Kleiber among us was some kind of catalytic force. His performance repertory was small, fatally so for anyone attempting to build a “normal” conducting career in this or the past century. That was obviously not his purpose; his limited range of public activity, and the quality of his performance values, stand as a touchstone, a reminder of times when a sublime performance of the Beethoven Fifth could make people stop and think about the music’s greatness and how to get it into the bloodstream.

Nowadays, with anywhere up to 100 Beethoven Fifths competing for your dollar at the local megastore — and with the classical department often moved over behind pop so that you have to leave your brain outside anyhow — you have to ask whether Kleiber died for the cause, and whether the cause soon will die with him. In his time he was a small but clear beacon light; the job now is to keep it aglow.

 

My words for Florencia en el Amazonas, the opera by Daniel Catan that the Los Angeles Opera sprang on its supporters in October 1997, were not particularly kind: “one more threadbare attempt to rekindle the operatic manner of Puccini and his lesser followers,” etc. Time has been kinder, either to Mr. Catan’s opera, to my wavering pen, or possibly to both; a semistaged cut-down version of Florencia, up at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater a few nights ago, turned out not bad at all — rather more than that, in fact.

Florencia, drawn from an episode in the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, belongs to the well-populated aging-diva-and-her-memories genre, set on an Amazonian riverboat. It suffers, as do all memoir-operas of my acquaintance, from a tendency to devolve into rather long arias. Furthermore, like most operas of the breed, there needs to be a second, younger singer with a second set of memories — or, at least, prospects — and this, in turn, leads to other long arias. Florencia falls into both traps, but does so rather prettily; at the Ford there was the further decided advantage of the excellent soprano Shana Blake Hill to sing Florencia’s sad songs and the radiant mezzo Suzanna Guzman to light fires under the music of the young Paula.

All this turned out as stronger, shapelier music than I remembered from 1997. Yes, the arias did run on somewhat. But the staging at the Ford also included some lively, attractive choral pieces and even, considering the limitations of the outdoor space, some clever shenanigans to suggest jungle and fog and the rest of the make-believe setting. The one real problem — throughout the evening, in fact — was the obviously slapped-together orchestra under the somewhat wobbly leadership of one Sean Bradley, “former army ranger, presidential escort, automobile repossessor and public school teacher.”

The program was presented under the aegis of Opera Nova, and was further burdened by a master of ceremonies, Michael Riggins, who managed to mispronounce nearly every name. Music by the excellent local composer Carlos Rodriguez began the program: a short fanfare and some enterprising interaction for cello (Matt Cooker) and electronics. Along the way the Uruguayan-born Miguel del Aguila came on to perform two movements from his Piano Concerto, a loosely glued-together concatenation of hilariously inept zingers from a Rachmaninoff scrapbook.

Two nights later, across the street at the Hollywood Bowl, there was almost exactly the same piece again, this time under the name of the Piano Concerto by the Brazilian composer Hekel Tavares, who died in 1969. Brazil, Uruguay, Moscow Conservatory: The program notes this time went on about the self-taught Senhor Tavares drawing his poetic inspiration from the forms of Brazilian folk song, and this may very well be, but once again the Rachmaninovian clatter o’ershadowed all: the virtuoso plink-plank, the belly-flop landing on the third-related modulation. I think you can buy that stuff in squeeze bottles nowadays.


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