Just that teasing first chirp from the superb woodwind contingent was news good enough to start off the Philharmonic’s 87th season, its third in Disney Concert Hall, the first of its “Beethoven Unbound” series. That sound — the tricky woodwind seventh chord that starts Beethoven’s First Symphony, delightfully, in the “wrong” harmony — hung suspended in Disney’s welcoming air, a magical presence. Do people bother to notice the elegance in Beethoven’s scoring for winds? That, to these ears, has been the special pleasure so far in the orchestra’s Beethoven project, which has now reached its midpoint and will resume sometime next spring. The premise — the lordly Nine Symphonies set against music of more recent vintage — is sound enough if you don’t ponder it too hard. Fortunately, management has stopped short of trying to find truly compatible companion works to “unbind” the masterworks of yore; of the three new works so far, only one struck me as truly worthy to share a program with even Beethoven’s most rudimentary symphonic venture.
Nobody will yet claim Esa-Pekka Salonen as the eloquent friend to Beethoven’s music he may someday ripen into. His performances to date, these past few weeks and in previous seasons, have been clear-headed, conscientious and, let’s say, noncommittal. He makes all the right moves. He seats the orchestra in the “classical” formation, with the second violins to his right, which nicely underlines the marvelous interplay among the strings. His orchestral balances favor the winds, and in these weeks there have been two splendid young tryout oboists who have turned Beethoven’s frequent oboe solos into pure stardust. Salonen’s attitude toward the composer’s stipulated repeats is, however, somewhat capricious; he honored the first-movement repeats in the First, Second and Fourth symphonies, not in the “Eroica” and “Pastoral”; in the Fourth, he omitted the repeat in the final movement, turning that wondrous whirlwind into a brusque breeze. It may take a few years’ mellowing before Salonen allows the brook in the “Pastoral” to flow unimpeded in its natural bed; this past weekend’s stream was the triumph of artificial plumbing. On the positive side, I could not ask for a more seductive 10 minutes in all of the Viennese repertory than the time spent with Salonen and his glorious woodwinds in the slow movement of No. 4.
Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto, which came between the “Pastoral” and No. 4 this past weekend and was delivered with infectious delirium by Leila Josefowicz, is, like its composer, a likable piece of work; in that respect, at least, it formed a fit companion for those particular Beethoven symphonies. Now and then it reaches into its British ancestry, with an occasional “hey nonny nonny” as if to flash its passport; most endearing, however, is a kind of all-over-the-place athleticism. Of the previous “unbinding” works — Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time and Magnus Lindberg’s Sculpture — my memories are so negative that fairness demands further hearings before I can honestly write.
Apropos honest writing, however… the pre-concert talks for the Beethoven series have been delivered — nay, hurled — by UCLA’s Robert Winter, who in his day held audiences spellbound with his three-dimensional musicological discourse but seems of late to have fallen into a fantasyland of his own fashioning. At the session on the “Eroica,” I wandered in as Dr. Winter was leading a group sing-along in “The Star-Spangled Banner” to demonstrate three-quarter time. A few minutes later he produced, or so he claimed, a recording of the “Eroica” by “my friend Artur Nikisch,” who a) died in 1922 and b) never recorded the “Eroica.”
Meanwhile . . .
The new season has burst upon us. Six other events held my attention in the past few weeks; let’s see if I can squeeze them in.
L.A. Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall (9/25): An opening blast from Mozart’s Titus overture confirmed the sheer vitality of Jeffrey Kahane’s marvelous small orchestra. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations was as good as the music needs, but boy! do that tired piece and I need a vacation from each other (after three hearings this summer).
EAR Unit at REDCAT (9/28): Our great innovative ensemble began business as usual at its new venue after being dropped at LACMA. In the usual gathering of self-indulgences and small-scale delights, Jacob Gotlib’s taut, nicely shaped contrapuntal exercise Filaments cast a particular glow in the latter category.
Terry Riley 70th Birthday Concert at Royce (10/1): I don’t often walk out of concerts early, but the lurid travesty perpetrated upon Terry’s In C by Japan’s Acid Mothers Temple (with, I’m told, Terry’s acquiescence) started a considerable exodus, in which I was not the first. Terry’s participation in his A Rainbow in Curved Air was the redeeming feature in an otherwise painful evening.
L.A. Master Chorale at Disney Hall (10/2): Francis Poulenc composed his Figure Humaine in France in 1943; ?the poetry, by the Resistance poet Paul Éluard, had been secretly circulated in occupied France during the war. The last of these choral settings is a passionate cry of pain: “On my notebook, on my desk, on each gust . . . I write your name!” In a fearsome crescendo, the rhythms and tempo continually interlocking and building over 21 stanzas, the poet struggles to write the name: LIBERTY!! And whatever you may think — whatever I have thought — about the frivolous beauty of Poulenc’s music, this final outcry on Grant Gershon’s program with his Master Chorale grabbed a capacity audience by the scruff of our collective neck and held us spellbound.
Cecilia Bartoli at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (10/10): Extraordinary, that with all the easy roads open to her to shine in the standard, even crossover, operatic fare, Bartoli has applied her awesome talent — a voice of melting, vibrant beauty, technique of pinpoint accuracy — to exploring unfamiliar, bygone Italian repertory of historical interest that nobody else seems to want to touch. Some of this material is, let’s face it, not all that great on its own. When Bartoli sang it in town the other night, with a splendid backup orchestra of early-music specialists, nobody seemed to notice.
The Juilliard Quartet at Disney Hall (10/11): The personnel has changed over the years, but the gold standard remains unalloyed; this is the quartet that knows how to prove that the late string quartets of Beethoven and the works of Elliott Carter are part of the same language. If anything, Carter Five in the Juilliard’s hands seemed to speak in gentler tones than Beethoven 131, but that was just part of the evening’s magic. Some grossly misinformed stringer in the Times has it that the Juilliard was once “brash.” That’s how a critic becomes an endangered species.