On paper it didn't look all that interesting. To inaugurate his regime as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Carlo Maria Giulini did not select a long-lost masterpiece or a neglected mystery piece. Nor did he turn to something new and dangerous. He played it safe and conservative with the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.
But what a Beethoven Ninth he gave us.
This, most emphatically, was no dutiful run-through, no obligatory gesture, no conscientious but uninspired repetition of a work we all know and love perhaps too well.
FULL COVERAGE: Inside the L.A. Philharmonic
This was a Beethoven Ninth on a massive, festive, heroic scale, a Ninth that thundered and roared but also whispered and sighed. Most important, it was a Ninth that sang—one that sang warmly and triumphantly.
Guilini, who apparently doesn't even know what the word routine means, approached the symphony as if the ink on the manuscript were still wet. He explored, he probed, he analyzed. He ignored empty tradition, and yet he never imposed independent interpretive concepts that weren't supported by Beethoven, never allowed the results to seem studied rather than spontaneous.
He is the sort of artist who deals, habitually it would seem, in revelations.
The revelations in this memorable instance involved a pervasive aura or grandeur, of power and of urgency. Giulini does not achieve expressive impact through exaggeration, however: he compels every detail to fall naturally into place, every dynamic nuance to make contextual sense. Nothing is forced.
He opens the symphony with almost cataclysmic vitality, and in the climactic "Ode to Joy" achieves a sense of release that is at once cathartic and universally optimistic. Between these formal extremes, for all the variety of tempo and color and mood imposed, he allows no letdown in concentration, no flagging of tension, no loss of introspection.
Giulini's Beethoven remains thoughtful, mellow, fundamentally romantic Beethoven. The line is long, the motion ever fluid. The crucial point of rest comes in the broad, arching cantilena of the third movement. It is marked Adagio molto e cantabile at the outset, and Giulini takes that instruction very seriously. Especially the last word.
It is still early, despite the generous rehearsal schedule which preceded this gala (i.e. nonsubscription) program, to ascertain the precise impact Giulini will have upon his orchestra. Thursday night he got the players to make music with degrees of attentiveness, opulence, and subtlety to which we—and they—are not exactly accustomed. It would be less than realistic, however, to claim that everything went perfectly. One encountered nervously executed details here, flubbed solos there, and some recurring instances of ragged ensemble. Time . . .
In the choral finale, Giulini produced a bit more sound than the Pavilion acoustics can accommodate without distortion. But he also induced a level of excitement that spurred a sophisticated audience—it tolerated no mood-shattering applause between movements—to a frenzied 15-minute standing ovation.
Simon Estes led the solo quartet—stationed with the chorus at the rear of the stage—with glorious baritonal top tones, some strange German and a rather weak lower register in the Schiller invocation. Robert Tear sang the tenor lines brightly, but submerged in the choral fabric at the heroic, ascending climax. Carol Neblett sounded luminous, but persistently a shade flat, in the thankless soprano part, and Claudine Carlson, like most mezzos in the Ninth, held her own rather anonymously.
The mighty chorus, comprising 100 voices from the Los Angeles Master Chorale (trained by Roger Wagner) and 60 from Cal State Fullerton (trained by David Thorsen) sang lustily, tirelessly, and, yes, sensitively.
Still, the evening belonged to the tall, gaunt, restrained, elegant poet on the podium.
He opened the intermissionless program, incidentally, with an "Egmont" overture notable for generosity of rhetoric and nobility of tone. This was considerably more than the usual throat-clearing ritual.