Music review: Emmanuelle Haim makes her L.A. Phil debut

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic did not seem to know what hit it Thursday night. Helicopters buzzed above downtown, policing Occupy protesters some blocks away from Walt Disney Concert Hall. The audience was unusually small for a subscription orchestra concert, but the energy inside was charged. Vibrant women were in charge. The players appeared, at times, almost shell-shocked.


It was the evening that the vividly imaginative French conductor and early music specialist Emmanuelle Haïm made her debut conducting a major American orchestra. The program was devoted to Handel, and Haïm was joined by a brazen, brilliant young Bulgarian soprano, Sonya Yoncheva.

Some have already begun calling Haïm a female Dudamel. She, too, has extravagant curly hair and comes on as another force of uninhibited nature. She doesn’t -- as women conductors often do –- act as though testosterone is what breaks a glass ceiling. She doesn’t pretend that gender doesn’t make a difference or that personal body language isn’t just about everything on the podium. She doesn’t conduct, that is to say, like a man. Or like anyone else.

But despite the L.A. Phil being an orchestra famed for its versatility, she didn’t get Dudamel-like results from the orchestra Thursday. At least, not yet.

This may be perhaps the most versatile orchestra in the business. It is able to jump on deliriously difficult new music with rare speed, and it regularly plays early music under specialists, particularly Nicholas McGegan, with sparkling ease. It knows its way around Handel, exploding “Royal Fireworks” every summer at the Hollywood Bowl.

But Haïm’s Handelian fireworks were meant to take the orchestra out of any comfort zone it may have thought it enjoyed. The program on the first half was fairly conventional, beginning with the Concerto Grosso, Op. 6., No. 1, and including two of the three “Water Music” suites (the first and third). After intermission things got wild with a rare, over-the-top Italian cantata that Handel wrote at 21 for solo soprano.

On the surface, Haïm, who conducted from the harpsichord with great gusto, seemed to ask for little more than other early music specialists do from a modern orchestra. The ensemble was small, under 30, and mostly strings with oboe, bassoon and (in the “Water Music”) two horns. A recorder player (Rotem Gilbert) replaced flute. A second harpsichord (Lucinda Carver) and lute (John Schneiderman) were also used.

The scholarship seemed trustworthy. But what intrigues the most creative musicologists these days is the notion of desire and pleasure in 17th century music, the subject of a forthcoming book by Susan McCleary. And that is exactly what Haïm, as well as Yoncheva, were audaciously after.

It meant orchestra members loosing up a lot, and this concert was perhaps equivalent to a beginning tango lesson. Haïm gave the players fanciful embellishments to seductively bend melodic lines. She asked for rhythmic playing that danced. She made expression paramount. She maintained very lively tempos. Slow movements were supple, alluring. Instrumental colors were meant to be gorgeous.

The Concerto Grosso did dance, although with slightly stiff poise. The ‘Water Music’ suites were highly atmospheric. But the orchestra sweated bullets. It did not let go.

In the mythological cantata, “Il Delirio Amoroso,” the letting go became essential, though, and baby steps were taken. Here, through a series of recitatives and fabulous arias, Handel portrays the erotic equivocations of a nymph who loses her lover. And Yoncheva, an opulent soprano with an ample coloratura technique, treated this as a series of va-va-voom moments. She could get overly cute (something a good director could probably remove from her interpretation in a matter of minutes), but mainly she produced a spectacular object lesson in Handelian singing put to the service of desire and pleasure.

There were many fine solos all evening. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour spun zillions of notes. Cellist Ben Hong offered limitless eloquence. But it was Ariana Ghez’s supple oboe solos that that gave the best hope for the L.A. Phil establishing another first: The first orchestra in America ready for Haïm’s kind of desire and pleasure. If so, that small audience will certainly grow.


Emmanuelle Haim, France’s attention-grabbing conductor

Music review: Handel and fireworks at Hollywood Bowl

Music review: McGegan’s ‘Grand Tour’ gets off to an amiable start

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $24 to $180; (323) 850-2000 or

Photos, from top: Emmanuelle Haïm conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night.

Soprano Sonya Yoncheva. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

[For the record 5:29 p.m. Nov. 18: Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6., No. 1 was performed at the concert. An earlier version of this review said it was No. 3]