More Sharp Than Flat

Long faces greeted the last new year. Record stores went broke; so did the manufacturers; so did symphony orchestras; so (sob!) did music critics. Long faces were soon replaced around here, however, with one that was round, cherubic and positively agleam, when Gustavo Dudamel came to town. He ascended the Disney Hall podium on a January night and soon found the Philharmonic at his feet — and the rest of the town as well. Within weeks, the orchestra’s predator-in-chief, Deborah Borda, had snatched the legendarily talented 26-year-old Dudamel from the contract-dangling fingers of half a dozen other greedy American orchestras, and made him our own. The triumph of her move was set aglow later in the year, when Dudamel returned with his own hugely talented Venezuelan youth orchestra, and confirmed what he had already made abundantly clear: He’s good, and he’s ours. Starting in the fall of 2009, that is.

That all opened the good-news floodgates for the rest of 2007, or so it seems. Assembling memories of the year — in no particular order except as they come to me — I seem to find more happy talk than sad. You may notice that my list sometimes digresses from that of my colleague, Mr. Swed of Brand X. At least we remain friends; it sure wasn’t that way with his predecessor.

Mark includes the Los Angeles Opera’s Mahagonny on his “worst of” list. I place the DVD version, just out on Euro-Arts, near the top of my “best of” list. It’s the same performance, but the video producers have kept their cameras focused on the cast, perhaps a little too much on conductor James Conlon, but mostly away from the excessive Las Vegas–style neon lighting that filled, and let’s say cluttered, the stage. You’re brought much closer to the marvelous Audra McDonald and the almost-as-good Patty LuPone; I found the whole gang of Mahagonny thugs, even the lesser characters, more clearly outlined on the nearly empty stage — and so, indeed, the whole marvelous work — than in the two times I saw it live at the Music Center.

On other stages, there was the sweet tenderness of A Flowering Tree, brought from the Vienna original to a slight reduction in San Francisco, with Peter Sellars’ working-around of an Asia-scented legend of lovers separated and rejoined, and music by John Adams. The very simplicity of dancing out the story was what drew tears; it was also wonderful how Adams, working with so many aspects of legend, could so easily locate their proper expressive levels. Something the same can be said, at a higher pitch, for the glorious fantasy that Korean composer Unsuk Chin has devised for her operatic Alice in Wonderland, which I journeyed twice to Munich to revel in. There, the staging was by Germany’s grandly fantastic stage wizard Achim Freyer, who is slated to deliver his version of the Ring to our own Wagner-deprived opera company someday soon.

Hearts of Darkness

Here at home, there was Leos Janácek’s stinging, painful domestic drama Jenufa, with Finland’s Karita Mattila making her long-overdue local debut, by far the most convincing evidence of the greatness potential within the L.A. Opera . . . a potential occasionally challenged by such gloomy matters as the ensuing Don Giovanni, with its sporadically splendid singing enclosed in a gloomy black box with coffins and similar gloomy paraphernalia lying all around.

Gloom and glory intermixed to greater effect in the Philharmonic’s two so-called festivals woven into the calendar: a Brahms series of symphonies and chamber music, with the eloquent Christoph von Dohnányi underlining the ponderous, old-world eloquence in all four symphonies and Esa-Pekka Salonen rustling the dead leaves to find the enduring strains of life in his Sibelius heritage — and finding it, paradoxically, in the least-approachable, darkest pages of the Fourth Symphony. I found new reasons to love this thorny, recalcitrant work, and even more reasons to forgive crusty old Uncle Brahms after rediscovering the enchantment in his Clarinet Quintet, which held me utterly in its spell on the Chamber Music night.

As easily as the collectible CD seemed to vanish from the marketplace, the few remaining new issues seem to wax all the more desirable. There’s Harmonia Mundi, France-based but giving off smiles and good hope from its local Pasadena HQ, continuing its superb and irreplaceable series of Mozart operas conducted by René Jacobs with a Don Giovanni throbbing with its intrinsic vitality. At another outpost, there’s the brave enterprise known as Innova, dedicated to new music, based among the frosts of Minnesota, and coming up with that performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians I wrote about recently, played with loving enthusiasm by a student group somewhere in Michigan and getting everything right. And then there’s a BBC disc to break everyone’s heart, the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in a recital recorded in London’s Wigmore Hall in 1998, in the full flush of the rhapsodic artistry that death would end less than 10 years after. The disc includes songs by Peter Lieberson, Handel and Mahler; Roger Vignoles is the excellent pianist. In one Mahler song, there is the line “Ich bin gestorben . . .” Another mezzo dead before her time, Kathleen Ferrier, recorded that song in her prime with what I hear as the same foreknowledge. I keep their discs together on a shelf.

Those are my list, those and the extraordinary insights into music’s place in the world in Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise. There are a couple more clinkers from 2007, if anyone cares. I haven’t yet recovered from Richard Strauss’ Domestic Symphony at the Philharmonic last week, or the gall of Zubin Mehta, trying to pass it off as music. I was also no more enamored by the Philharmonic’s “Tristan Project” than I was the first time around, for reasons including Bill Viola’s videos, Peter Sellars’ staging and the gall of peddling it as three tickets. The L.A. Opera is marketing it as a single ticket next month, with David Hockney’s sets. I heard both principals in Munich last month and they were okay. Just okay.

One more thing. I downloaded Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new Piano Concerto from the New York Philharmonic broadcast, so that it counts as a best-of-2007 event. It’s also scheduled here for May 29, so it also counts as a best-of-2008 event. Is it worth two listings? Boy-o-boy, is it ever!

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