A few weeks ago I expressed some rude thoughts in this space concerning the program chosen for the Philharmonic debut concert of the young British conductor Daniel Harding. Specifically, I feared that a string-orchestra version of Anton Bruckner's String Quintet, sprawling over nearly an hour of precious concert time, might be a paltry test for the conductor, and a torture for the audience. I must now eat those words – some of them, anyhow.
The music itself made some remarkable points in this orchestral expansion, more so than in other works similarly defiled: Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” Quartet inflated for full string section, or the Brahms G-minor Piano Quartet in Schoenberg's Wagner-size rewrite. It did so because Bruckner's piece never had much to do with a recognizable chamber-music style in the first place. The members of a chamber ensemble discourse, each as an individual, on serious and complex matters that would be buried if entrusted to a symphony orchestra. Even as played by the intended five strings, Bruckner's Quintet sounds like an evaporated Bruckner symphony. In the string-orchestra version, under the splendid young conductor, the music surged, charmed, occasionally nattered but sometimes moved, like everything else that composer has inflicted upon the repertory – with an exceptionally beautiful slow movement, which in Brucknerland (Austria and Germany) is often performed as a separate concert piece. Rather than deplore the ruination of this music by its conversion to an orchestral piece, I would advocate an even more sonorous treatment: not just strings but great dark clouds of Brucknerian close harmonies for horns and trombones, trumpets blasting away at the Pearly Gates, aggregations of the anointed dancing atop the kettledrums. I don't happen to think that the world needs another Bruckner symphony, but I know people who do.
Beyond my expectations, the Bruckner – and, for that matter, the entire Philharmonic program – became a triumph for the 22-year-old Harding, an appealing golden-haired sprite who, with a dab of help from a Hollywood agent, could make off with some of Leonardo's lovesick maidens just for the asking. His work on the podium conjures memories of Simon Rattle – whose protege he once was – in his early days: exuberant with a touch of flamboyant, but remarkable in the way his sweeping gestures produce sweeping results. After his convincing Bruckner venture, Harding led the reduced orchestra as an eloquent participant in Robert Levin's imaginative take on the last of Mozart's piano concertos; at the end Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin music engulfed the hall in audible lava. Watch this kid; he's on his way.
I remember saying that about Dawn Upshaw back in 1984, when I wandered into an all-Schubert program performed by then-unknowns in New York's dowdy Symphony Space. Now, at 37, she has fashioned herself into an artist as close to flawless as never mind: a voice of silken, radiant beauty, in the service of words and music dispatched with impeccable taste, a lively imagination that opens doorways in the repertory that other singers would never aspire to enter. All this, plus the intelligence to shape and pace a career built around her own keen definition of excellence. Some singers I know began with Mozart and Schubert as steppingstones to Tosca, and ruined their voices thereby. She manages her own career with a keen awareness of her own sublime musicianship – and even its boundaries. Miss her solo recital, Sunday night at the Music Center, at your peril.
With Salonen and the Philharmonic, Upshaw sang music of this century: arias from Copland and Stravinsky operas, and Lukas Foss' Time Cycle, that strange, misshapen showoff piece that some people around 1960 – including that year's Pulitzer Prize jury – mistook for a genuinely modern spirit embarking bravely into the future. Foss has never been that; his real talent has been in sniffing out new currents and coming in mere split-seconds behind: not the first opportunist among composers, but one of the most charming. Time has long run out on Time Cycle; not the urgency of Upshaw's singing, nor the elegance of the surrounding orchestra, could convert its ashes into a believable form.
Salonen began and ended the program with music from Mexico: Jose Pablo Moncayo's folkish Huapango at the start, and Silvestre Revueltas' what-hit-me La Noche de las Mayas, with its percussion that, if performed anywhere but at the staid Music Center, might have brought the cops. Great, boisterous stuff this, revealing a side of Salonen's musical sympathies one might not have guessed a few years ago. I have heard Revueltas' 25-minute work led by Mexican conductors, in person and on records, lots of noisy fun but not much more. Perhaps it requires a Finnish interpreter; the exuberance in Salonen's performance pounded on the chest, but the outcries and the pain in this remarkable score lingered even longer.
A certain romance hovers over Johann Sebastian Bach's six suites for solo cello. Like the similar suites, sonatas and partitas for solo violin and for keyboard, the works are sets of dance-paraphrases, each prefaced by an extended prelude and ending with something jovial in jig-time. There's nothing in the Cello Suites with harmonies as heartbreaking as those in the Sarabande from the Third “English” Suite for keyboard, nothing as majestically conceived as the Chaconne in the D-minor Partita for violin. Still, the mystique around the Cello Suites made the notion of playing them all together less stultifying and more magical than you might have believed. Yo-Yo Ma's performance of all six suites, in two concerts under UCLA auspices at the Grand Central Station-size Bel Air Presbyterian Church, drew full houses and filled them with lively, sometimes rather merry, sometimes melancholy music making of high order.
These pieces take on a semblance of life before large audiences, more entrancing than their actual quality might suggest. The cello itself is part of the reason; it enables the performer to look straight ahead, unencumbered by violin or viola anchored in the jowls or preoccupied by the keyboard, to make faces at the audience, the music itself, or the Almighty who dictated it. Three of the great cellists of our time – Rostropovich, Harrell and Ma – also happen to be among today's great face-makers. The sound of the instrument is also part of the reason: the throb of the low notes, the ecstasy of the highs. The music demands free, romantic, “inauthentic” if you will, playing, which is what it always has received – from Pablo Casals, who made the first recordings with rubatos that Chopin might have sanctioned, from Harrell and Rostropovich, and last weekend from Ma. One thing he brought to his playing that some other cellists may have missed: the fact that playing these sovereign pieces before a loving audience in a strange and slightly wacko setting was, above all else, great, infectious fun.