6-9 November 2007
That’s the thing about L.A. One minute it can drive you (literally) to despair, and in the next to exaltation. I interrupt these notes (overall more times than I can count) to return a call to a pal in deep despondency. Goddess only knows I’ve been there. We toss Topic D back and forth a bit and discuss pharmaco-therapeutic strategies. Then I join him up on that razor’s edge for a minute – to talk us both back off of it – easier for me because I’m just coming down/coming back from an absolutely terrific high which he would have no problem relating to; but also because, at least within the practical workaday dimension, it’s within his grasp. (Translation: he’s the one with the book deal.)
I’m not sure if “the beauty” (as one of my psychologists once put it) is what keeps us going; but it sure doesn’t hurt. D—is never going to be too far away (especially given the abundance of external triggers – personal, political, etc.). But once in a while, the stars glitter a bit more brilliantly here in our cosmopolitan gutters. I’m still coming down from the exhilaration of this evening’s performance of the UBS Verbier Youth Orchestra at Disney Hall. A performance that began a bit anti-climactically yielded one climax right after another, each a bit bigger than the last. It would have been worth going to see and hear Martha Argerich alone. It was a bit stunning to see Argerich on this kind of bill to begin with – but maybe not. In the years since her recovery as she's returned to concertizing, she has become increasingly involved in mentoring youthful pianists and other musicians, sponsoring competitions and symposia and fostering music education for talented youth worldwide. It was just a bit less stunning to see Charles Dutoit as the conductor; but there was no getting around the fact that these were two high-wattage names committing their prestige to this enterprise (they’ve embarked on a world tour with this orchestra). Argerich has worked frequently with Dutoit over the years, and it was hard not to imagine something good coming out of this musical chemistry – even if it only involved the two of them. There was at least one other factor working in their favor. This was music they both knew in their bones – almost too well. Dutoit worked without a score the entire program.
And what a program: the Prokofiev Third piano concerto in C major for the first half and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz for the second. Not exactly giving the kids (or anyone) something easy to warm up to. All virtuoso-level stuff – and you sensed the kids’ tentativeness at the start of each half. But that’s another thing (I didn’t know) about Dutoit. On top of being a great conductor and knowing the music as if he wrote it himself, he’s a great music coach. Working with a full orchestra right down to a full percussion section (for the Berlioz), he managed to rein them in and whip them up to peak performance. He was so physically engaged with each section of the orchestra, there were moments when I thought he was going to jump right off the podium and into one or section or another of the orchestra. The strings, being closest, really came in for a trouncing. It was a kind of deliverance framed as their worst nightmare. The audience had to stifle a sympathetic laugh or two as Dutoit all but hectored his cellists with his baton. But why bother about what it looked like? It worked.
Maybe they needed it. Maybe Argerich needed it just a bit. As tentative as the orchestra may have sounded as the violins picked up the clarinets’ sentinel in the first movement and began their ascending cascade, Argerich jumped right in – but maybe just a fraction off the beat – seemingly feet (or fists?) first – missing a few notes and actually hitting a couple of clinkers in the first movement’s opening staccato fusillade and wild tarantelle over the keyboard before somehow regaining her balance in those deliberated chord progressions and meshing back with the orchestra’s jagged rhythms now wonderfully articulated by the flutes and woodwinds. As Argerich began that oriental figure that descends down the keyboard to the recapitulation of the movement’s opening, I shared a sigh of relief with my companion. What briefly threatened to be a casually slapdash rendition would be nothing of the kind. Argerich was back to her sublime self with that enchanting reverie/rhapsody of the second movement – the conductor of her piano as she steered her way securely through the variations – as Dutoit’s orchestra followed with equal assurance. The third movement saw each through to that Elysian domain of the sweeping, haunting, almost Rach-like figure that closes fast upon the swirling staccato cycloid that drives the final movement to its fiery finish. No lighters or cellphones required – the audience was on fire and on its feet. Who expected an encore? This was love – but Argerich returned it in full – first with a Scarlatti sonata – dazzling; then with an improvised excerpt of the Schumann Kindersehnen. Pure poetry. There was nothing (musically) left to say, but the audience kept her returning for one curtain call after another until the lights came up.
The Symphonie began just a bit slowly (but then, it’s supposed to be a ‘dream’, right?); but the kids were warmed up by now and Dutoit kept them exactly where he needed them. It soared, swept, (slept?), and scared (just a little) – in all the right places. The Walpurgisnacht movement left everyone as fired up as we were after the Prokofiev; and the Orchestra rewarded itself and us with an encore they had clearly planned with some savor – the Ravel Rhapsodie Espagnole, which fireworks they set off as easily as Argerich rolled out her Scarlatti and Schumann.
They left us breathing (panting, gasping). I’m kidding – and I’m not. I realize I’m getting a bit side-tracked here. It’s such a cliché, but there’s no denying it. There are things that change the way you look at the world. And the last couple of nights have been nothing short of that. Last night, it was simply dinner with a friend (following, I might add, a “conversation” – an L.A. Public Library event – with the architectural photographer, Julius Shulman – but in this instance, the architecture/photography conversation took a back seat to our own). Tonight (which eases into this morning), it was Argerich, Dutoit, and the UBS Verbier Orchestra. The champagne (a single glass – I swear) doesn’t hurt; but L.A., chilly and fog-enshrouded, for a few minutes seemed the most beautiful and luminous city in the world.