Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Keep It Light

November 27, 2010

Bryn Terfel

The Los Angeles Philharmonic presented the city with an early Christmas gift this weekend in the form of a second show under the guidance of “Conductor Laureate” Esa-Pekka Salonen. Friday’s performance played to a near capacity crowd and featured the assistance of superstar bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. It was the kind of program not typically associated with Salonen, although he has conducted the works of both Hindemith and Wagner before both in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber and the arias and overtures from Wagner’s operas were big, rich, Romantic works known more for their sweep and grandeur than their subtlety. Salonen produced wonderful playing from the orchestra across the entire night, letting his love of clarity and precision take a bit of a back seat to big dramatic gestures in those scenes that called for it.

The night started with Hindemith’s reworking of themes from Carl Maria von Weber. This orchestral oddity fit well with the evening’s proceedings by providing a 20th-century vision of one of Wagner’s major operatic predecessors. Hindemith culled together disparate themes and melodies into four movements that retain much of their Romantic air despite clearly breaking from Weber’s original intentions. It was admirably played, though I didn't know quite what to make of it. Then came the main course, three Wagner preludes paired with three arias to be sung by Terfel including “Was duftet doch der Flieder so mild” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, “O du mein holden Abendstern” from Tannhäuser and Wotan’s final scene from Die Walküre. The preludes from Act I of Die Meistersinger, Act III of Die Walküre, and Act III of Lohengrin were all crowd-pleasers that Salonen attacked with a mobile, almost galloping pace. Salonen had distinguished himself in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Los Angeles during his time as music director, and these brief snippets clearly implied he has much more to say about the composer’s other operas.

Of course, Terfel was the other center of attention this week. He also appeared with pianist Malcom Martineau in a solo recital on Monday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a program featuring works of Schumann, Finzi, and Ibert. Terfel is a natural born showman, a talent he used to full advantage on Monday in a set of familiar songs popularized by early 20th-century baritone John Charles Thomas. Terfel’s charming and funny narration about songs like “All Through the Night” and “Home on the Range” which also featured an audience sing-a-long, was endearing. Yet overall he took the recital program with more sobriety than I've seen him show in the past, which is a good thing. Terfel has not been above crooning and schmoozing, but the Schumann was given the respect and attention it deserves. Terfel's Wagner excerpts on Friday were more of a mixed affair. He has a supremely beautiful and warm voice that can float soft notes high above the audience and orchestra. His Hans Sachs aria from Meistersinger and the Wolfram von Eschenbach aria from Tannhäuser were striking and easily the highlights of the night. Interestingly, though, his take on Wotan’s farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde was less convincing. I had been somewhat underwhelmed with Terfel’s Das Rheingold Wotan at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this Fall, and here in L.A. I got a bit of a better sense why. While Terfel can do tender and loving and brokenhearted better than anyone, he is not nearly so successful when a dark, stentorian voice of God is called for. His Act III Die Walküre is clearly heartbroken, but not very commanding. Still, it is a great chance to hear the L.A. Philharmonic play beautifully under Salonen, which you can do two more times this weekend.


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