Twenty years, give or take, separate Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto and Berlioz’s “Fantastic” Symphony; one week separated their presence at the Hollywood Bowl (in very classy performances, if you were wondering). The two works sing in different languages, but they occupy similar positions in the musical annals. Both stand at a crossroads. Beethoven’s vast design, grandest and most complex of his ventures in the classical concerto, carried that genre to its logical point of no return. The young Berlioz, his head full of newly discovered Beethoven (and Shakespeare and Faust), created something in the name of “symphony” that escorted his awestruck audiences to the very gates of hell.
Other composers after Beethoven’s time would try their hand at composing concertos, some even successfully. But the “Emperor” stands alone. Its sheer size commands awe. Its tunes are vast, and they move toward unpredictable new regions. Sometimes there is no tune at all, just a pounding, obsessive rhythm hollered forth by piano and orchestra in turn. Classical harmonic procedures fall by the wayside; after all the triumphant E-flat posturing that fills the first movement’s 20 or so minutes, Beethoven probably frightened his 1809 audience right out of their britches by bringing on the slow movement in a totally unrelated key: B major, five sharps after three flats! At the end of that soft-spoken, divinely beautiful slow interlude, he escorted his dumbfounded listeners back to E-flat with a sudden jolt — no preparation, no smooth transition, no easeful modulation, just BANG! (a soft bang, to be sure, but a shock nonetheless). There are other wonders in store. His finale is built around a skittery sort of tune; perhaps it turns up once too often. But right at the end, he pulls a part of that tune out of context and transforms it into a new obsession — DAH-da-dum, DAH-da-dum over and over — pushing it higher up the scale, wreathing it in harmonies more and more insistent. If you’re looking for a musical illustration of ecstasy at its purest, that bit of Beethovenian peroration will do just fine.
The “Emperor” crowned two evenings at the Bowl in which Jeffrey Kahane, conducting from the piano, led the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in all five of the Beethoven Concertos, a sequence that spanned the 14 years of Beethoven’s conquest of the musical world. Kahane and his wonderful small orchestra have done the cycle before, indoors; on two nights at the Bowl, irradiated by a couple of the Almighty’s superior sunsets (and with only one intruding bit of aircraft), and with the smallish orchestra — four stands of first violins instead of the Philharmonic’s six, four cellos instead of eight — Beethoven’s remarkable wind scoring seemed the right match for those evenings’ benevolent, balmy air. Notable, too, was Kahane’s own conception of his place in the scheme: not as a pounding virtuoso, but as a member of an idealized chamber ensemble. A mashed note now and then, a scale passage ever so slightly out of focus, these detracted not at all from the eloquent music-making.
The “Fantastic” ended Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last of three programs “previewing” the Philharmonic’s brief visit to the Edinburgh Festival; other Berlioz — the “Royal Hunt and Storm” music from Les Troyens — began the evening; both works served as good company for Salonen’s own LA Variations midway. Salonen’s music wears well. There are new discoveries on each rehearing, and it would not be insolent to suggest that Salonen himself may also be learning more about the work as he goes along. The inner structure — the dovetailing and the contrasts that create the sense of “variations” — demands, and rewards, a certain amount of hard work. This is genuinely great music, however, a sense now widely corroborated by reports from beyond the mountains.
Berlioz has become, for Salonen, congenial territory. Here is a conductor who knows the music’s extraordinary range of color — the way a single note from the strings can shine a light upon a wind passage, the way the harps, in the “Fantastic”’s waltz movement, become the dancers’ jewels, the horrors outlined at terrifying distances by the snarling trombones at the gates of Hades. An outdoor “Fantastic” puts amplifying systems to a cruel test, and the sound of the performance under Salonen at times only suggested the depths of the orchestra’s command of the music. One awaits further proof; if Salonen and Berlioz are made for each other, surely the new sounds at Disney can only seal the relationship.
Indoors, there was some quieter
French music at the County Museum, in an evening of piano duets as a pendant to LACMA’s current Belle Epoque exhibition centering around the seductive, flowing lines of Modigliani’s paintings. Vicki Ray and Joanne Pearce Martin chose well; indeed, there is music from that time that catches most abundantly the insidious play of line and color in those magical roomfuls upstairs at LACMA. Ravel’s Mother Goose always sounds better in its original piano-duet scoring; enough of the color is inherent in those intricate lines to create a full range of sound in the ears of any imaginative listener. There was, perhaps, too little Satie that evening; I would have been happier with his Pieces in the Shape of a Pear than the too-brief En Habit de Cheval . . . maybe next time. Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit was the evening’s most substantial work, and the evening’s show-stealer at that. Its comedy remains delicious, its giggling delight at its own discovery of Latin jazz makes even its obsessive repetitiousness seem too short. Bits and pieces of Stravinsky’s doodling filled in around the edges, as did Poulenc’s 1918 Sonata, a lesser work, overshadowed by his later piece for two pianos.
Indoors, too, in the airless reaches of Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theater, this summer’s Music Academy of the West Festival ended with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in as close-to-perfect a small-scale production as never mind. A young cast had been finely drilled, by a faculty with Marilyn Horne at the top, in everything worth knowing about Mozart’s sublime comedy: the exact cadences of Lorenzo da Ponte’s airborne Italian, the flow of emotion that merges heartbreak into joy, chicanery into resourcefulness. Even the conducting of Randall Behr, obviously in happier circumstances at Santa Barbara than in his days at the Los Angeles Opera, had snap and sparkle and a fine sense of ensemble. Some superior vocal and dramatic training shone forth in the work of every member of the cast, and I left wondering how many Figaro performances I have attended of which I could say as much.