Don’t Feed the Animals

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Fabio Biondi of Europa Galante

More of the same: The new guy has come and gone after his two-week Philharmonic guest shot, leaving behind echoes of adoration and tumults of anticipation — next Disney gig: November 24 — and memories of a sound spectrum ranging from the infinitesimal (the tail flicks of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun) to the cataclysmic amorosities of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé. It was a program of sheer ecstasy on many levels, and, on one at least, beyond any challenge: the sheer delight in the phenomenon of a master music director, at the head of a supremely responsive orchestra, with a program of music specifically designed to bring out the best in that orchestra, playing for a hot-ticket audience at the edge of its collective seat, ready and willing to swallow it whole. You have to remember Esa-Pekka Salonen’s comment, on first seeing Gustavo Dudamel in action: “He’s a conducting animal.” There have been times these past two weeks when young Dudamel has turned us all into listening animals.

And so, they — we — got what they came for. And yet … for myself, I would have been happy with a lot less than the complete Ravel ballet, of which the first half-hour is taken up in mime and gesture and musical noodling, pretty to be sure, before the music coalesces in the great climactic dances known as the Suites 1 & 2. The sounds are lovely, ethereal, full of everything we admire in Ravel; I can’t help thinking that the time might have been put to better use, that there might have been the chance then for further acquaintance with our new guy: A Mozart symphony, perhaps? (He has conducted nothing less than Don Giovanni, at La Scala.)

Well, he leaves us now not exactly a stranger. His command of the balances, the lights and shades, in the Romantic orchestra is phenomenal; last week’s Berlioz and this week’s Ravel, with the lovely control of wordless chorus (the Pacific Chorale) against orchestra, demonstrate an amazing — what they call, simply, an “ear.” That showed too in his sympathetic work with soloists, especially in Leila Josefowicz’s supple, dazzling dispatch of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto this past weekend. These were great concerts on their own, and greater in their promise.

 The D-minor Demon

There’s a D-minor Concerto for Strings by Vivaldi that has haunted me since boyhood. Serge Koussevitzky used to play it often in a ponderous, dense style with the full Boston Symphony string section; oh my, how those double basses would resonate in Symphony Hall! Then there was a single-disc recording led by Alexander Schneider, with, of all things, a harpsichord on, if I remember, a Mercury disc; that was the start of awareness, for a whole generation of collectors, that there was such a thing as authentic Baroque musical performance, or something like it. That concerto — No. 11 in the “L’Estro Armonico” collection — has always been a landmark for me, and I try never to miss a performance.

We’ve come a long way since 1950, I guess it was. We later passed through a time when the “authentic” Baroque violin couldn’t use vibrato, and was expected to sound sort of gray. We’ve come out of that too. Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante, the 11-member “authentic” Italian ensemble that played Baroque-era music in Disney Hall the other night, performed on contemporary-looking violins (plus a great-looking old lute) and played with style, strength, clarity — and vibrato. They performed that D-minor Concerto I was telling you about; they whizzed through its convolutions and paused only briefly in its melodic moments — as Vivaldi’s own forces surely might have done. They also played a set of dances by Purcell that included the “Aire” that Benjamin Britten used for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Nothing sounded ancient and dry; everything sounded fresh and “authentic.”

Three of the works were by Vivaldi, which was fine because of the marvelous robustness of his style and the genuine sadness he could muster in his slow movements. At the end, there was a set of single movements by eight composers, each of them a dance imitative of some national style of the late 17th century, all of them charming and clumsy in an endearing way and, for reasons beyond any serious musical sense, utterly enchanting.

 Ever on Sunday

Grant Gershon began his monthly Sunday Master Chorale program, at Disney, with a set of choral songs by Poland’s Henryk Górecki honoring the Virgin Mary, composed in 1985, 10 years after that minimalist composer’s Third Symphony, but seven years before it became what Gershon accurately described as a “fund-raising anthem for NPR stations coast-to-coast.” Card-carrying Góreckiites expecting a replay of the anguished white-on-white tunes from that work may have been dismayed at the Disney Hall concert on Sunday night; others, myself included, found the music touching in its simplicity. For Górecki to have composed so ardent and loving a setting of these sacred texts in a politically charged atmosphere seems to me courageous enough.

Gershon’s good work with his chorus is widely known and honored, perhaps more for their participation with other major projects than for their independent concert series. I had not realized until Sunday’s concert, for example, that they have embarked on a systematic survey of a truly important repertory project, performing the late Masses of Joseph Haydn, one per year: grand and grandiose works of Haydn’s final years, full of the wisdom absorbed in his London visits, therefore solidly aglow with the choral spirit of Handel, and at the same time marvelously rich with the melodic and harmonic wisdom of Haydn himself, this grand old innovator in the glow of mature wisdom. Sunday’s concert ended with a Mass in B flat, titled the “Theresa Mass” for reasons nobody knows. Its date is 1799. Haydn had already composed his last symphony, the “London,” with its amazing shifts of harmony like nothing he had attempted before. Some of these turn up in the long quartet for soloists in the “Gloria” in this Mass; the harmonies in the “Benedictus” are also lush and lovely, looking across the century gap toward, perhaps, Schubert. It’s a wonderful piece, lasting about half an hour; wouldn’t it be great if there were a church in town where music like this could be performed in its proper setting? (No, not the Cathedral, too big and too much echo.) Anyhow, I’ve got to stop neglecting these people; they’re an okay chorale.

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