MUSIC REVIEW : Celibidache Takes Improved Munich Philharmonic to UCLA

Times Music Critic

Curiouser and curiouser.

The Munich Philharmonic and its arch-nonconformist maestro, Sergiu Celibidache, moved from the Music Center to Royce Hall, UCLA, for a one-night stand on Sunday. In the process, they continued to confound both tradition and expectation.

The composers represented on this occasion included one obvious choice: Richard Strauss. He was, after all, a native Munchener.

Otherwise, the concert offered German business as unusual. It began with Ravel’s quasi-gallic “Rapsodie espagnole” and ended with Mussorgsky’s quasi-Russian “Pictures at an Exhibition.”


The latter potboiler, not incidentally, seems to have become a Munich staple. The rival Bavarian Radio Symphony also brought it to a simmer on a visit here last month. One wonders if the opus should be renamed “ Bilder at the Pinakothek .”

The biggest surprise of the evening involved the sound of the orchestra. Perhaps it was the flattering resonance of the Royce acoustic. Perhaps it was the coincidence that the system of rotating principals had brought the best players to the fore.

One still heard some technical indiscretions that might not be tolerated in Chicago, Philadelphia or Berlin. Nevertheless, the general level of cohesion and suavity had risen drastically, and most gratifyingly, in 24 hours.

Then there was the most curious matter of the mighty, mystical and mystifying Celibidache himself. He remains a vexing paradox.


One moment he offers a revolutionary definition of mood and melodic evolution, in the process uncovering instrumental details that had eluded the world for a century. The next moment he succumbs to willful distortion.

Celibidache does not bore the listener, even when he turns his attention to the banalities of Mussorgsky’s museum. Give him that.

But, when he stretches this tempo and tugs at that fragile line and blows up this sentiment and tramples that fundamental impulse, he invites exasperation. The UCLA program offered provocation, inspiration and exasperation in virtually equal portions.

Ravel’s subtle experiment with Spanish perfume was slowed down and pulled apart virtually beyond recognition. Still, the relatively original tone poem that Celibidache created in its image resounded with sensuality and climactic point. Eccentricity can be interesting.


The Strauss tone poem proved uncontroversial. Here, Celibidache made the strings shimmer, the winds croon and the brass blast. He made the romantic rhetoric grand yet tense, broad yet impetuous. This “Don Juan” turned out to be genuinely stylish, and a minor revelation.

The Mussorgsky escapade, as orchestrated by Ravel, turned out to be a major revelation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so stylish.

Celibidache seemed intent on making the small minuscule and the large gargantuan. Exaggeration, in this instance, brought with it the danger of preciousness at one extreme and grotesquerie at the other.

Even here, however, one had to admire the architectural sweep, the subtle nuance, the unanimous brio and concern for matters of light and shade. Celibidache takes nothing for granted.


When he wants to, he even can be amusing. Seizing certain illustrative opportunities, he mimed cute chicken maneuvers worthy of the “Fille mal gardee” barnyard. This from the maestro who decries indulgent showmanship on the podium.

The odd yet oddly compelling evening ended with another round of bravos accompanying meticulously choreographed bows for virtually everyone, from lofty concertmaster to lowly flugelhornist. Only the ushers and stagehands were neglected. Some Munich manners come perilously close to mannerism.