Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A Fine Romance

January 16, 2010

Lorin Maazel and Nancy Gustafson with the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

This weekend marks the return of Lorin Maazel to the conductor’s podium with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first of two weeks worth of programming. And while they may not have the “tradition” requisite to retain the service of top flight French flutists, our local players have developed a track record of making great music in recent years with maestros recently resigned from contentious East Coast music directorships. Christoph Eschenbach has led some very memorable performances here, and now Maazel is returning to Los Angeles perhaps looking for some of the same magic. Tonight’s program, which featured Strauss and Sibelius, was very good. Certainly it was a marked improvement over the miserable account of Britten’s War Requiem under his guidance from 2008. But tonight was not quite the barn-burner that it might have been.

The Richard Strauss works in the first half of the show were all operatic in origin. Maazel opened with a luxurious wallow in the Der Rosenkavalier Suite. With pacing a decided notch slower than most opera productions, Maazel took time to lavish attention on every last Viennese moment of these highlights. Following a very large ovation, he returned with two Salome excerpts, the Dance of the Seven Veils and the final scene of the opera with soprano Nancy Gustafson. The dance music was sufficiently slinky and foreboding and the playing was committed from everyone. The finale was somewhat marred by the playing of a prerecorded dramatic reading of the opera’s plot summary. It was laughably bad and I couldn’t help but wonder why no one wants to speak to the L.A. audiences any more. It wasn’t a problem last year when our then maestro would often comment from the stage on a wide sampling of work. Now, no one seems to know what to say, preferring a tape to do their job.

Nancy Gustafson, a favorite of Maazel’s, is not an ideal Salome. She’s underpowered here and was often crushed by the orchestra. She has a bright and pretty tone that lacks much edge in a part that greatly benefits from it. And while she definitely went with a dress that oozed an appropriate sexuality with cleavage and a huge slit up the front, it was also a little reminiscent of one of those Erich Sokol cartoons from Playboy in the 60s. Maybe a bloody head prop would have helped. I will give her this, though, she could find and hold the notes which is more than Nadja Michael did in her most recent San Francisco Opera appearances. After the break was Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, which was by turns exciting and frustrating. Maazel again went for lush, big, romantic versions of the first and last movements. But the Andante seemed choppy and confused, frequently coming to near standstills for no apparent rhyme or reason. It wasn't unreasonable, though, and the show, which had fairly patchy attendance on Friday, will repeat this weekend for those so inclined.


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