Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

You can't win them all

May 11, 2008

Salonen, Griffey, Paasikivi and the LA Philharmonic
Photo : mine 2008

Or at least not this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. What started out as a great program stumbled along the way to a not necessarily superb finish when Esa-Pekka Salonen led the L.A. Philhamonic in a 20th century program including Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony paired with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Certainly a program with very little fluff and the kind of show that Salonen and our excellent hometown crew can get down to serious business with. The soloists for the Mahler included tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi so my expectations naturally were somewhat high.

Things started off well with a very convincing performance of the Hindemith, which benefited greatly from Salonen’s clean-as-a whistle, detailed approach. The sound was amazing and did get one to wondering exactly why we haven’t heard Hindemith’s operas on these shores more regularly. Smaller amounts of less interesting music have been used to launch a thousand Puccini productions over the years, and this symphony proved extremely rewarding.

So with such a strong start, it was hard to wrap my head around why Mahler’s song-cycle of a symphony didn’t fare better. Part of it sadly was Griffey. I love Anthony Dean Griffey and after his triumphant turn as Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera this spring, one wants to believe he can do anything. But Salonen and Mahler were merciless; easily overpowering him throughout and leaving him inaudible even in the great acoustics of the hall. He was clearly straining as if he were being tormented by Bugs Bunny at another famous Los Angeles landmark.

But this wasn’t the Hollywood Bowl, and with the more lively aspects of Erde under water, the slower drearier bits stood out making the work seem more lumbering and ponderous than it needed to. There were a number of really amazing moments, though, attributable in large part to Lilli Paasikivi – yet another Finnish wonder with an absolutely beautiful voice that she employed to maximal effect. She nailed the thanatos of the work. Her appearances in the U.S. have been limited, which is a situation I’d surely vote to change in the very near future. Still, there are plenty more programs featuring Salonen left on this season’s Philharmonic schedule so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that things pick up.



That's interesting. I hadn't been able to pin down the source of my own restlessness at that concert. It seemed like the Mahler went on for-EH-ver. I think you got to the heart of it by pointing out the lack of balance between the boy's songs & the girl's songs. His movements completely lacked punch. And hers were rarefied & atmospheric, but seemed to last for a literal eternity. She was very sensitive though: I particularly liked the 2nd & 4th movement.
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