Lingering suspicions harbored by the naysayers, that the goings-on at the Hollywood Bowl are incompatible with cultural uplift, were resoundingly shattered last week, in the last of the L.A. Philharmonic’s four concerts led by its inspired music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Here was music-making on an enthralling level, applied to a serious and challenging program. The crowd, a too-small 4,900, stayed to cheer even through two short unscheduled encores at program’s end; the demons of air traffic accorded the event a rare, almost-silent sky.
The orchestra, under new managing director Willem Wijnbergen, decamps now for a European tour, along with the chance to show its stuff, including most of the music from its four Bowl concerts under Salonen — in Wijnbergen’s home town of Amsterdam.
Salonen’s own 21-minute “L.A. Variations,” which began the program, could be the most daring music ever performed outdoors: a stupendous workout for both players and listeners as a complex, tortuous theme spirals through the orchestra, tries on a wondrous variety of disguises, weathers storms along the way and ends enchantingly as a shaft of audible white light (a single high note on the piccolo). Perhaps the crowd’s reception fell short of the memorable ovation at the premiere at the Music Center in January 1997, but not by much.
Next, to compound the evening’s fund of miracles, came Gustav Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” their deep, haunting poignance captured for all time in the ravishing singing of American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, framed with comparable eloquence by Salonen’s orchestral support. In what seems to be a golden age of mezzo-sopranos (Patricia Larmore, Cecilia Bartoli and a half-dozen Russians), Hunt still stands tall, the seamless radiance of her voice moved by an intelligence that has lit lights in a wide-ranging repertory from Baroque to brand-new.
Salonen’s affinity for Igor Stravinsky’s music is attested by a continual stream of recordings (on Sony Classical); yet, the miracle of transmuting the first 20 minutes or so of Stravinsky’s complete “Firebird” ballet into coherent concert music lies beyond even his power.
Knowing what’s to come, one sits through those first long minutes indulgently, admiring the pretty woodwind solos and the slithery strings, waiting, waiting … But a sense of “why bother?” resides close at hand — until, that is, those resplendent final dances burst forth, and the genius of the young Stravinsky, as underlined in Salonen’s performance at the Bowl last week, splendidly emerges.