Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

I Get Delirious

November 18, 2011

Emmanuelle Haïm. Photo: Simon Fowler
Emmanuelle Haïm burst onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Thursday night for the first of three concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend. She stood out in just about every way you could imagine. The only woman scheduled to conduct any of the regular subscription Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts this season, Haïm is a Baroque music specialist and this was an all-Händel program. She carries an impressive mane of reddish-brown hair and she placed herself in a sidesaddle position on the end of the bench she would occasionally use while conducting from the harpsichord in a Tori Amos-like fashion. Händel’s music is filled with 18th-century dance rhythms, and she would often follow along with her own jerky dance-like movements throughout the evening. But perhaps the most unexpected thing about her appearance this weekend is how she managed to extract such an exciting Baroque sound out of the players of a contemporary American orchestra. And while the Los Angeles Philharmonic is no stranger to Baroque music, this performance was something special with a leaner, crisper sound more akin to a period practice ensemble than a major American orchestra whose 19th and 20th Century repertoire is its bread and butter.

Haïm, like many other Baroque specialists, has made her name over the last decade by playing primarily with her own period-practice ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée. She’s appeared with many other orchestras as well with varying success and periodic controversy as with her last minute departure from an assignment at the Paris Opera in 2010 reportedly over rehearsal time to perfect a period-practice sound. But if there were any such issues on Thursday, one wouldn’t have known it from the performance. The show began with Händel’s Concerto Grosso in G major paired with two of the Water Music Suites. The sound was kept to scale with the thirty musicians on stage including two harpsichords and an occasional recorder. But the playing was never overly polished. Haïm managed to preserve the feel of the dance rhythms indicated in the score while maintaining a beautiful singing quality to the sound as well. It was both bracing and frequently surprising.

After the break was a performance of Il delirio amoroso, Händel's pastoral cantata that was sung by soprano Sonya Yoncheva. Again the orchestra sounded superb with a particularly nice contributions from principal oboe Ariana Ghez. Yoncheva showed reasonable coloratura technique with her rather dark hued voice. She could overpower everyone on the upper end of her range, and I sometimes wished for a bit more shading and clearer diction from her. But she was a spirited actor with a dominating physical presence and was clearly committed to the performance. In fact her rather saucy approach to the text made the pastoral goings-on seem a little less staid and a bit more delirious. But the triumph in the end was Haïm's who proved that the schism over how Baroque music is played between historically-informed specialist ensembles, and larger more general orchestral ensembles, need not be so large. There are beautiful interpretations to be made by any set of forces and this weekend in Los Angeles, local audiences have a chance to hear the best of both worlds.



It is nice of you to mention some of the orchestra's solo players, but it would be even nicer to be accurate and fair about it. For example, Andrew Bain did not even play in the Il delirio amoroso because there are no horns in it. While praising him and Ariana Ghez both of whom certainly played well in this program (he shined in one of the Water Music suites and she did indeed have a big opening solo in Il delirio), you inexplicably ignored huge contributions, particularly in Il delirio, from Martin Chalifour who heroically conquered several finger-busting violin solos and also from Ben Hong who played his cello solos superbly with great beauty of tone and elegance of phrasing.
As for Sonya Yoncheva's coloratura technique, it is far better than simply "reasonable". She is a wonderful singer and was clearly the star of that show.
I stand corrected. I mentioned the soloists I felt strongest about, but that isn't intended as a criticism of those I did not. As for Yoncheva - to each his own.
On Saturday afternoon, Placido Domingo attended the concert, presumably primarily, if not exclusively, to hear Sonya Yoncheva, and by the end of her performance he was visibly moved literally to tears. (No, i am not trying to make Guinness Book of World Records for adverb usage - just flaunting my awful writing skills, i guess.) That kind of a reaction from one of the all-time greatest operatic tenors is, for me, a very powerful endorsement of this young soprano's singing excellence.
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