The opening note was a horn blooper; moments later a beeper sounded in the hall down front; the program consisted of music by Mahler. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, in other words, began its 81st subscription season at the Music Center Thursday night with business as usual.
Some things, however, were changed: four new orchestra members, a new managing director-designate (New York Philharmonic’s Deborah Borda, to replace the precipitously departed Willem Wijnbergen) and, most audibly, a new stage configuration, extended 16 feet farther into the audience area in an attempt to improve the sound of music in the hall. The result (in all three instances, in fact): so far so good.
Two seasons ago a temporary stage extension, with the orchestra located downstage from its usual position, surprised Philharmonic management and audiences alike with a considerable brightening and clearing of the sound but at the cost of impairing the view from many seats in the hall’s upper reaches.
Late last season the Philharmonic announced it would make the change permanent anyhow and sell the impaired-view seats at reduced prices. A total of 378 seats were tagged as “obstructed,” with another 80 “slightly obstructed,” leaving an unproblematic 2,628.
Obviously some of the small imbalances noted at this first concert were the consequence of getting used to the new sound.
Already, however, the changes resulted in a brighter, more thrusting string tone from the stage and an improved sense of “air” around the orchestra itself. The long, mysterious opening of Mahler’s First Symphony did, indeed, seem to hang suspended in midair; the apocalyptic roogie-roogie at the end succeeded in raising the roof without shattering the eardrums. Brussels-born baritone Jose Van Dam sang a set of elegiac, haunting Mahler songs with a voice of seamless, plangent beauty.
This was the first of only three programs to be conducted by the 41-year-old Salonen at the Music Center before starting a “sabbatical.”
During his year off at home in Los Angeles, he will compose an opera slated for the 2001 Aix-en-Provence Festival and an orchestral work for Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, lead the Philharmonic in several recordings including a CD of his own works, participate in a concert of his music at UCLA’s Royce Hall in January and, otherwise, take life easy.