Sorrow and Sympathy
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center
Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24)
Leonard Nimoy (narrator), Christine Brewer (soprano), Marietta Simpson (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), William Stone (baritone)
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Sunday afternoon as if he were giving a reading of Edward Lear instead of King Lear. As if the Ninth were a precursor to Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scotch symphonies, rather than Beethoven’s last attempt to put into an orchestral context his huge love of sound, of nature, and of humanity.
It’s no longer surprising that Salonen responds this way to Beethoven; he has done so ever since he first started conducting regularly in Los Angeles. Salonen’s musical heart lies with the composing friends he made at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki where he gave up the French horn, first for the composer’s pen and then for the baton. His passion is for music that lies in a line from the ambiguous chords of late Sibelius and the clear-eyed fogs of Debussy to the music of Messiaen and beyond into the new century. If he must perform classical symphonies, Salonen prefers the less played symphonies of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven. But items like Haydn’s 78th Symphony and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony were anathema at the L.A. box office, and so, out of commercial necessity, he began conducting Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Ninth.
What made Sunday’s performance of the Beethoven surprising, aside from the fact that Salonen programmed it at all, is that is came at such an emotionally rich time in the calendar, the culminating days of the Jewish High Holidays.
Salonen could not have been other than profoundly aware of the weekend’s spiritual significance. He opened the concert, after all, with the shriek of Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and segued from the concluding dead march of the Jews and their unison prayer directly into the opening bars of the Beethoven. But his performance of the Schoenberg, illuminated by Leonard Nimoy’s hoarse, moving narration, was drenched in such sorrow that the metronomic, unemotional Beethoven that followed felt like a slap in the face. Given the circumstances, how could Salonen conduct the Beethoven at such a dog-trot pace, how could he take the cosmic Ninth for such a perfunctory ride around the block?
The answer must lie in the reality of every artist’s limitations, in the illogical and unreasonable expectation that a conductor be able to respond to the whole of the symphonic repertoire equally. Clearly Salonen’s ability to find meaning and sorrow in the compressed, internalized language of Schoenberg, who captures the agony of six million souls in six minutes, is at odds with his ability to find consolation and sympathy in the extravagant, externalized language of Beethoven, who requires an hour to express his overwhelming realization of humanity. For Salonen, either choosing or being asked to conduct the Ninth at this time in his life, is simply a mistake.
For the record, the Philharmonic played well if imprecisely at times, the singers and the chorus gave all that they had, and the audience roared its approval at the end. An audience made up entirely of music critics might have responded differently, but this audience was not so cursed.