Firm Foundation

The Philharmonic hires well. Last week’s classical concerts at the Hollywood Bowl were entrusted to the orchestra’s second-tier leaders, assistant conductor Joana Carneiro and associate Alexander Mickelthwate. They represent an orchestra’s crucial support system, the young conductors, recently out of conservatories or competitions, sometimes with a few years on podiums with orchestras in the boonies here or abroad, sometimes not, who stand closely by. They conduct the kiddie concerts, perhaps a “Green Umbrella” or two. They attend rehearsals, make themselves useful doing all kinds of backstage chores, wait for the principal conductor to fall off the podium so they can re-enact the Cinderella story. Almost any major conductor you can name — Salonen, Tilson Thomas, all the way back to Toscanini — has at least one such episode in his vita.

Carneiro and Mickelthwate represented a nice contrast: the former born in Lisbon with a fair list of conducting dates in Portugal as well as here; the latter German, who in his first year here made his conducting debut on 30 minutes’ notice, replacing an ailing conductor in a murderous program of Shostakovich and Adams. Both young conductors came to the Bowl last week with programs that could pass as self-portraits: Carneiro with a Hispanic mix, rendered impure but all the more enchanting with the added accents of the Frenchman Ravel and a couple of soloists out of Brazil; Mickelthwate with the German romantics and a Korean soloist to draw the crowd.

The steamy, slithery harmonies of Ravel’s Spanish Rhapsody glided effortlessly into the warmth over Cahuenga Pass on Tuesday; so did everything that followed. Carneiro’s musical impulses are admirable, and the orchestra was producing elegant, seductive sounds for her all night. Arnaldo Cohen, Brazil-born, now at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, was the pianist in a sleepy performance of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain — but I think the piece itself is sleep-inducing — and the fabulous Luciana Souza, whom we know and love for her singing of Golijov at Ojai and on a new DG recording, caused the very air to sizzle in the all-too-brief vocal passages in Falla’s El Amor Brujo. Most fun of all, I have to admit, was the closing, inevitable Boléro of Ravel, with the video screens, for once, really keeping up with the instrumental changes in this maligned, amazing work.

Thursday night’s inevitability was Sarah Chang again entangled in the Bruch Violin Concerto, the third pairing in my Philharmonic files, plus one I remember trying to forget in Orange County. Is it a matter of stuck wiring? Is it the Korean national anthem? (It does draw the crowds.) This was Mickelthwate’s final date as the Philharmonic’s associate conductor; why lumber his last program with this drab misadventure midway? He moves on to become music director of the Winnipeg (brrr!) Symphony, and when he returns (as he promises), it will be in the distinguished role of guest conductor. His tenure ended with a spacious unfolding of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony in all its crippled but somehow affecting eloquence.

Bubbles (1929–2007)

I’ll bet anything that when Beverly Sills found the typo in the first line of Bubbles, her autobiography — “I sang my first aria in pubic” — she let it stand; it would be just like her.

One afternoon in 1979, we floated around on rubber horsies in her pool on the Vineyard. She’d just taken over the City Opera from Julius Rudel, and was full of tidbits about the mess he had left her: new productions booked without set designers, that sort of thing. Balancing a small tape recorder in a breezy pool isn’t the easiest of journalistic tasks, but I managed. I got it all into my article for New York Magazine, and Rudel exploded. Beverly phoned. “Oh, was that an interview?” — I could see the eyelashes coyly fluttering. “I guess I just didn’t know.”

That was a low point, and there were a couple of years after that when I felt I needed clearance from her implacable manager, Edgar Vincent, just to say “hello.” I prefer to dwell on the high points; there were many, though we started off slowly. I fished out my Herald Tribune review of her Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the New York City Opera, September 28, 1966, which is generally reckoned as her career turnaround, and there isn’t much: “Beverly Sills is the Cleopatra of everyone’s dreams and her handling of some ferocious coloratura is all the more remarkable . . .” I was too much the scholar for the extended gush, too aware of how Handel’s score had been mishandled in the edition prepared for the New York City Opera.

I really fell for Beverly Sills in a college gym in Medford, Massachusetts, some four years later, as she came marching down the center aisle, waving an enormous Tricouleur and trilling Donizetti’s bugle call that begins his Daughter of the Regiment. Sarah Caldwell had put that performance together, as conductor and director, and those two ardent, blithe spirits — plus a gang of right-minded collaborators — had invented a way of creating opera out of voice and spirit and performing space that remains unique in my opera-going memory.

Sills would go on to a fabulous career under other conductors and directors, and make us aware of a repertory of great opera — of the bel canto era most of all — that we might otherwise not have known. When she sang with Caldwell’s company in Boston, or later together in some memorable La Traviata performances at the Met, there continued to be an interweave of musical understanding, of the nature even of a simple phrase, that elevated the artistry of both beyond anything they accomplished by themselves. Tragically, little or none of that great togetherness has been preserved.

We had too little of Sills’ artistry here in Los Angeles. The brief visits by her City Opera incurred resentment from local forces over booking time at the Music Center, and the deal was finally torpedoed with an outburst of ignorant proclamations that I hope will never again come to light. Other, happier, memories are there for the keeping.

LA Weekly