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Review: The farewell to Esa-Pekka Salonen begins at Disney Hall

April 17, 2009 |  4:51 pm

Oedipus 2 

Esa-Pekka Salonen's last program as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic ended quietly Thursday night. He is leaving not with a bang but with a prayer, a blessing, a benediction. And he is leaving all the lights in the house on as he goes. The house is Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as the house of music.

Salonen conducts Stravinsky As those house lights went up – and up and up – members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale surrounded the orchestra and conductor in a huge ritual embrace.  They sang “Alleluia. Laudate, Dominum.” Praise God. The orchestra played the most magical chord Stravinsky ever wrote.

Stravinsky loved this chord, which closes his “Symphony of Psalms.” Let it vibrate, he noted in the score. If the instruments are perfectly balanced, the intonation is exact and the acoustical space has just the right amount of immediacy and resonance, that sound can survive physical decay. Once you’ve heard it and digested it, the chord becomes part of you. You can always call it up.  

Those were the conditions Thursday for this all-Stravinsky program, which will be repeated tonight, Saturday and one final, emotional time Sunday afternoon. The evening began with Stravinsky’s awkward opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex.” Peter Sellars staged the two works and joined them, using “Symphony of Psalms” to resolve “Oedipus.”

EPS Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” has been an accidental but key marker in Salonen’s L.A. career. In 1989, for Salonen’s first concert with the Philharmonic after being named music director (and three years before assuming the post), he conducted the score in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with an updated staging by Gordon Davidson. The Times' critic Martin Bernheimer panned it.

Two years later, Salonen recorded “Oedipus Rex” with the Swedish Radio Orchestra. Sellars said at the Upbeat Live pre-concert talk Thursday that when he heard it, he thought the young conductor got absolutely everything wrong. In 1997, Salonen programmed “Oedipus” in a concert version at the Chandler. This time he upstaged Stravinsky. On that same program was the premiere of Salonen’s breakthrough “LA Variations.” The Stravinsky was impressive if a little on the remote side. Salonen’s score was the news of the night.

Sellars also said at the Upbeat Live that he recently re-listened to the old “Oedipus” CD and now found that it sounded good. And, indeed, the conductor who made that recording wasn’t unrecognizable from the one on the Disney stage Thursday. There was still an attention to detail, a solid, no-nonsense pulse, and a dynamic sense of rhythmic articulation. But all now serve a higher dramatic purpose.

Stravinsky’s “Oedipus” is a queasy score. In 1925 the composer wanted to write something big and chic for Paris. He had secretly returned to his Russian Orthodox roots but didn’t dare show that on the boulevards. He also harbored a secret passion for 19th century Verdian operatic passion. “Oedipus” is a weird mix of it all. A French narration and a frosty Latin text were fashioned by the fashionable Jean Cocteau. 

Cocteau’s characters are victims of fate and his is a tale told from afar, we moderns being so very much better than the ancients. Stravinsky sneaks in musical flesh and blood.

Sellars sees his mission to reveal Stravinsky’s inner religiosity, with Oedipus as a Christ-like figure in an Easter Passion play. The Philharmonic was set on a flat stage without risers. The chorus was placed behind and above the musicians and dressed in street clothes (the costumes are by Sellars regular Dunya Ramicova). On the highest level are a row of African thrones and masks by the remarkable Ethiopian artist Elias Simé and the characters of the drama.

Cocteau’s narrations were replaced by texts from Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” and told from the point of view of the king’s daughters -- Antigone (actress Viola Davis) and Ismene (dancer Sonja Kostich). For the most part “Oedipus Rex” is all pain all the time.  The opera begins in horror, the city of Thebes is beset by plague. The Master Chorale signaled the people’s horror through hand signals and magnificently powerful singing. 

Sellars demands a theatrically elastic cast. Tenor Rodrick Dixon was an unusually sympathetic Oedipus, as he exchanged hubris for humility (and, of course, his eyes). Baritone Ryan McKinny changed costumes between a petty politician (Creon), the messenger and the seer Tiresias. Anne Sofie von Otter, who was a fresh-voiced Jocasta on the early Salonen recording, was here a magnificently wild queen.

There were acoustic compromises. Without its risers the orchestra sounded strangely more in your face, and the playing had an inescapable dramatic intensity. The singers, up high, were lightly amplified and perhaps a little too lightly. Voices, other than Von Otter’s and the chorus, didn’t dominate Thursday.

After intermission, Antigone introduced “Symphony of Psalms” by relating the rest of the story. Ismene led the blind Oedipus to the center of the stage. The chorus began its hymns in a slow procession from the aisles, surrounding the stage. A mystical aura of kilowatts (the lighting was designed by James F. Ingalls) illuminated every inch of Disney.

Salonen’s performance was full of fervor while, at the same time, utterly serene. He turned 360 degrees to cue to the chorus around him and it felt as though he was gathering the audience in as well.

All evening, Salonen controlled everything but was not the center of attention. Afterward, cheers for a music director of 17 seasons naturally enveloped the hall.  But Salonen took only one brief solo bow. For all the rest he was with cast and colleagues. His sought not the conventional solo limelight but instead a communal light meant to keep burning.  

-- Mark Swed

Salonen Conducts Stravinsky: The Final Concerts, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.; 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; very limited ticket availability, (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Top photo: Rodrick Dixon (Oedipus), Sonja Kostich (Ismene) and Viola Davis (Antigone). Bottom photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (4)

Very intellegent review, we were there Saturday evening, we saw, we heard, we agree, and we will miss Esa-Pekka. Keep on truckin' Mark Swed

I was at the very last of the farewell concerts on Sunday. The program was indeed a feast for the senses, both musically and theatrically. Peter Sellars had the vocal principals gesturing like marionettes, except during the Oracular mentiuntur / Pavesco duet.when Jocasta held Oedipe fast before their fateful epiphany. Anne Sofie von Otter demonstrated superb virtuosity and effectively conveyed Jocasta's inner conflicts. Viola Davis, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the role of an anguished mother in the 2008 film Doubt, delivered the narrations just as movingly and powerfully here.

Towards the closing bars of the Symphony of Psalms, Esa-Pekka Salonen symbolically laid down the baton and finished conducting with hand movements. The entire audience stood applauding for about 20 minutes while close associates exchanged handshakes and hugs with the maestro.

Thank you, BL - I was there as well and had forgotten that the baton was not in Salonen's hand at the end! It was a very moving concert, although I wish the voices had been a bit stronger (von Otter excepted). The staging was very interesting - how much fun does Peter Sellars have in Disney Hall?
It is an end of an era; Dudamel has very big shoes to fill. I wish him well.

Didn't care for the Peter Sellers hula/theatre of the deaf mash-up of Oedipus and Symphony of Psalms.

I had never heard Oedipus and wonder why Stravinsky embraced having a narrator without music for long stretches. Time constraints on the project perhaps? It was drears. Duh, wait the point was to use a famous actress, right? Well Viola lucked out in not having to do nearly as much "semaphore work" as the rest of the cast, dreadfully lame to behold. You know when you're watching a bunch of people on the dance floor and like only one or two of them dance beautifully and it's so demoralizing to look at people trying to have a good time? Only in this case even the few people who did their "business" gracefully and with some conviction looked like idiots. Ok so Oedipus appears to end with a monologue by Viola. Yay! I need a drinkie.

The costuming was really for ***: a couple of the principles wore dark shirt and tie, one wore a mexican border woven pullover type thing, then there were a couple of dashikis the star wore some sort of white gown that didn't leave any impression. The lowly chorines were workin' a "nerds' casual friday" look. I guess the point of that was because in addition to the corny hand gestures they were required to keep diving to the floor, in place - the stage is quite small - disrupting the music, disrupting the audience's attention to the music, to do all this hokey emoting, writhing in despair together over the great plague and the unsavory revelations. Then they pull themselves up again to turn upstage to "listen" to the principles. It was like simon says oh brother.

Upon our return the stage is set for Symphony of Psalms which I really know well and love and I sang it in high school and so I'm ready to tuck in and even sing along. But noooo! The stars are still shinin on. It's a "mash up" you see, it's like more about LA and the coveted Emmy, at least that's certainly how I felt at this point. So the actress does a long ass monologue, from church! The eyes of the audience glaze over as they wonder why Oedipus wasn't finished off already. He's on stage too, being led around by someone to do bad Robert Wilson together like until they finally step inside an 'edgy' square on the ground made of Dan Flavin's leftover 4 flourescent light bulbs. We're no longer in wondrously wrought sculptural imitation African chairs now, Dorothy! I couldn't believe how dreary and cruel it's like oh no music juuuust yet, first we're doing more acting school monologues - Emmy was declaiming, "praise him in his noble acts, praise him according to his excellent graces" etc. the anglican version of Oedipus it was and certainly the most methodically emotional reading of this particular text I expect ever to hear in my life. (One should really also consult the Geoffrey Beaumont "Twentieth Century Folk Mass" with the Frank Weir Singers for more on this done to a modernisch turn.) Really, the audience was seething at this point and rightfully so. This didn't prevent their giving a magnificent ovation afterwards. But when the music finally started there WAS more than usual the smattering of coughing and throat clearing of the faithful that invariably accompanies the first notes of an orchestral performance on this planet.

Oh the lead singer of Oedipus was miked. He's not a real opera singer. So that was really bothersome to the chorines I think. Alright, I happen to KNOW that it was. In the SOS, the chorus was now ... . . .getting closer, in terms of dress, I felt, to the heart of the matter, for it was now "casual overweight st patrick's day" - the men had changed into another boring outfit now wearin the green, the women joined (oedipus' chorus is an all-male affair) and many of them favored a mumu look: you could squint and pretend they were all in grass skirts which would have nailed it. I mean each time they sang the word "listen" they'd cup their hand to their ears; each time they sang "speak" they'd mimic the path of the sound from their mouths with their hands icumin out. Thinking? Correct, they'd sort of what...indicate their noggins for that, and so on. You've got it. I was disappointed actually not to see them do a visor over their eyes scanning the horizon for "And I look for the resurrection of the dead." The chorines were disposed around the orchestra and um maybe this provided clarity, especially at cueing time there was no missing that the fugue was a fugue. It most definitely allowed Essa to work his magnificent profile, to toss, twist and twirl and lord over our magnificent symphony-hall-in-the-round. Well why not, he's a dashing figure of a man!

Symphony of Pslams is so short. I wondered if both these pieces weren't God's way of telling us that Stravinsky was getting too many commissions after awhile?

When Peter Sellers takes his curtain call, oh god, the winsome face, winsome clothing, winsome coiffure and winsome moves...you really want to throw shoes at her.


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