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A Moment of Clarity

November 20, 2010

Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the L.A. Philharmonic with Willard White and Anne Sofie von Otter Photo: mine 2010

In the middle of Bartók’s opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle there is a giant C-major chord played full force by the orchestra as Judith opens the fifth of seven locked doors to reveal the great expanse of all Bluebeard’s kingdom. In comments he made before Friday night’s concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen remarked that this was one of those top ten great moments in music. It was his first appearance here since departing the orchestra leadership position in the Spring of 2009, and when the orchestra got around to that chord in Friday’s concert performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle it was indeed a very big moment. The orchestra roared as the darkly lit Walt Disney Concert Hall was suddenly flooded with bright white light from every direction as if the Hall and the orchestra were the very kingdom Judith was observing for the first time.

And it couldn’t have been a more telling moment. Salonen’s return to the Los Angeles Philharmonic came much like that C-major chord for an audience and orchestra that at times has been stumbling around in the dark for over a year. He was greeted with a long and enthusiastic ovation from the crowd upon entering the stage. The music began, and suddenly, it was all back - the musical clarity and precision the orchestra had made its reputation on in two works from the last hundred years. Salonen was at the podium in control and the players were with him every step of the way. They all knew where he, and they, were going and exactly how to get there. The concert performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle which took up the majority of the program was gorgeous and foreboding. Actually written in 1911, it sounded urgent and fresh like Bartók could have completed it just weeks ago. In fact Salonen allowed for a little digital updating using internet-derived samples of actual sighs to take the place of the wind gusts that mark the opening of castle doors in the score. It wasn't all technological wizardry, though. The brass outdid themselves as did all of the Los Angeles Philharmonic players who played in support of the vocalists for the evening, Willard White and Anne Sofie von Otter. White is the ideal Duke musically with his rich, deep, and commanding tone. The heartbreak in the inevitability of his new wife’s fate was palpable. Von Otter didn’t fare nearly as well in this context, struggling to be heard above the orchestra throughout. And while I didn't feel she managed the clarity one would have hoped for in her role, there were some lovely quiet moments in her part.

But this was primarily Salonen and the orchestra’s night, and they made the most of it. Before the break was another much more recent but equally impressive work, Magnus Lindberg’s Graffiti. Lindberg and Salonen have long been kindred souls, and Salonen brought the U.S. premiere of this 2009 composition to Los Angeles with all of its easy flowing music and moments of surprising beauty. Lindberg has stated that Graffiti, a work for chorus and orchestra, grew out of his desire to experiment with operatic forms. And while Graffiti is not an opera, it was superbly sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The work is a setting of a Latin text. Somewhat unusually, it is no mass or requiem, but instead a collection of graffiti culled from the ruins of Pompeii. There is no narrative, but the short, sometimes repeated phrases containing all of the vulgarity, bravado, and sentiment one would find on any urban wall today. Salonen drew parallels between the purpose of this writing and the kind of information that predominates much of on-line social networking today. And while there may be some irony to setting Roman graffiti to music, it works in a surprisingly way as if to loudly proclaim "I am here." As the piece unfolds, the vocal lines go from feeling odd and disconnected to sounding somehow primal and unifying. Graffiti is the most humanistic of works in its attempts to find a common lived experience between thousands of years in the most unusual places.

And while I’m not always the biggest fan of humanism, I will admit I was taken with Lindberg’s Graffiti and was seduced by Salonen’s suggestion that it is truly a contemporary masterpiece. But whether it is or not, it made for a stirring companion with Bartók’s opera. Undoubtedly, this weekend’s L.A. Philharmonic performances are the best they’ve had in well over a year and missing it would definitely be an error of the greatest magnitude.



If my chorus were not rehearsing and performing this weekend, I WOULD BE IN LOS ANGELES.

And he's also doing Bluebeard with the NYPO...in March, the same weekend my chorus is performing. SOB.
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