Music Review: SALONEN’S STRAVINSKY: MYTHS (Los Angeles Philharmonic)

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by Tony Frankel on April 27, 2019

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


When we think of Stravinsky’s music, contemplative, encompassing beauty isn’t what pops into mind. Yet that’s what we get in the very rarely performed ballets, Orpheus (1947) and Perséphone (1934). As part of LA Phil’s erstwhile Music Director’s series, Salonen’s Stravinsky, Esa-Pekka Salonen continues his salute of (mostly) lesser played works by Stravinsky. For this program, “Myths,” not only is the inestimable orchestra on call for both works, but for Perséphone — a strange amalgam of opera, dance, cantata, and text (by André Gide, no less) — director Peter Sellars also utilizes the LA Master Chorale, the LA Children’s Chorus, the Amrita dancers from Cambodia, four designers, two stage managers, a soloist, and a narrator. With all of that going on, it was surprising what a snooze-fest the whole shebang turned out to be.

The first half was simply the Phil and the amazing Salonen performing Orpheus, a 30-minute neoclassical ballet in three tableaux and twelve dance episodes about the musician-poet of Greek myth, and his struggle to rescue his wife Eurydice from Hades. Premiered by The Ballet Company (soon to be New York City Ballet) in its final performance at NY’s City Center in 1948, the work was created right here in Hollywood with input from choreographer George Balanchine, who would go on to use 41 dancers. At Disney Hall, it was choreographed by … no one. A large upstage playing area was never used because there was no dancing. And if ever a ballet composition needed dancing, especially in the slower, soporific, parts, Orpheus is it.

Salonen’s considerably controlled concert demonstrates that no amount of scrupulous detail helps when offering a languid tempo and medium-piano volume that created more coughs and throat-clearing in the audience than I think I’ve ever heard during a LA Phil performance in the last ten years. Watching Salonen conduct is always a treat: fingers waving, elbows circling, and hands flipping into an “OK” sign, but the strings needed to be much beefier. Closing the eyes certainly helped to concentrate on the lush lyricism, but it also supported the need for an overstuffed recliner. While the orchestrations were mostly responsible, Salonen urged soloists to stand out, and that was the best part: oboist Juliana Koch; horn player Jaclyn Rainey; concertmaster Martin Chalifour, harpist Lou Anne Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine added much-needed flavors to this slog. Adding to the tedium were descriptive narrative supertitles which we had already read over and over before the show began.

After intermission came Perséphone, which wasn’t well-received (either here or at its premiere in Paris). With an overreaching, confusing, imperfect text of piecemeal rambling — one which caused a falling out between writer and composer — Stravinsky manages to offer the strange tale of Persephone going to the Underworld of her own volition within his stylistically irregularity beautiful religious and classic overtones to a modernist work. While Salonen conducted with solemn reverence, his unforced playing was matched by Sellar’s unforced direction, which was a sad imitation of his 2012 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid. Without incorporating artists on one stage, Sellars has the narrator (Cecélia Tsan) standing in front of the orchestra in bright light, stealing focus from the performers behind the massive orchestra.

The four slow, minimalistic, methodical Asian dancers interpreting the story did it a la The King and I’s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” but here it was Jerome Robbins on lithium. Tenor Paul Groves, who has been on board since the beginning, sounded magnificent as Eumolpe, a hobbling high priest. The can-do-no-wrong choruses were offered in a typical Sellars touch – barefoot and dressed in street clothes offering synchronized arm movements – as they were bathed in the most beautiful crystalline red light by James F. Ingalls, whose illuminations were awesome throughout. Unfortunately, Sellars does nothing to illuminate the transition between the abduction, Hell and then back to Earth, and it rendered Stravinsky’s work dull, which is sad because this difficult piece is so much more palatable on the recording by Salonen and The Finnish National Opera. This concert was a mythed opportunity.

Salonen’s Stravinsky: Myths
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S Grand Ave.
ended on April 20, 2019
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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