Jessye Norman, superdiva, was the heroic soloist in music of Beethoven and Wagner. Christof Perick, incipient maestro of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, served as urgent, well-routined guest-conductor on the symphonic podium.
To some, these words may seem a bit premature. Norman and Perick, after all, are scheduled to serve as stellar attractions at the grand opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday. This coming Thursday.
Yet there they were, this past Friday, performing virtually the same program in the fifth concert of the season by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall. The arrangement suggested a convenient northerly try-out for a southerly event at best, or a lazy traveling-package deal at worst.
Perhaps there is a method in the madness of a prefabricated concert. Doing it on the road does give the protagonists the luxury of extra preparation, and mutual familiarity can breed contentment. It also allows the itinerant conductor to focus primary attention on the orchestra, not the soloist, when he confronts a new band.
If the San Francisco version is a reliable gauge, the Los Angeles concert should at the very least be loud, fast and festive. Mellow orchestral sonorities and subtle details proved elusive in the raucous acoustical ambience of Davies Hall (an 11-year-old auditorium now undergoing extensive restructuring). Still, this was an undeniably good night for anyone who likes a mighty, mushy noise.
In Beethoven's concert aria, "Ah! Perfido," Norman raged and soared with enormous emotive flair, and with histrionic indulgence to match. She now produces an extraordinarily broad, lush and dark sound in the middle register that accentuates the relative weakness of her top tones. But her abiding authority--both verbal and musical--remains beyond dispute.
In Brunnhilde's Immolation scene from "Gotterdammerung," she poured out vastly generous portions of reflective grief, exulting in the swollen rhetoric leading to the heroine's glorious sacrifice if not in her climactic high notes.
Although she has wisely avoided this formidable challenge on the stage, Norman brought a broad repertory of bigger-than-life gestures with her from the opera house, and commanded attention even when in statuesque repose. Understatement has never been her forte.
Perick, making his debut on the local podium, provided taut and muscular orchestral impulses throughout. He is not a Wagnerian of the old school. In Siegfried's "Rhine Journey" and funeral music, he failed to invoke the majesty of a Furtwangler or the breadth of a Knappertsbusch. Nevertheless, he understands the essential dynamic structures and rises effectively to the inherent expressive challenges on his own modernist terms.
The San Francisco Symphony responded to his straightforward commands with much gusto and little finesse. In Mendelssohn's incidental music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened the program here, the orchestra served the prose better than the poetry.
* Davies Hall may not yet be a sonic paradise, but the seating plan provides the rare luxury of leg room between rows. By the summer of '92, the house will also afford the civilized convenience of two side aisles on the main floor. One hopes the masterminds of Disney Hall are paying attention.
* The program magazine for the San Francisco Symphony--probably the finest of its kind in the world--contains musical information in massive, sophisticated depth. At the same time, it manages to avoid both intramural hype and social puffery. Los Angeles could well take a leaf from this book.
* Herbert Blomstedt, the no-nonsense music director of the San Francisco Symphony, seems to have inspired more respect than excitement since his arrival in 1985. In a rather unusual public move, Robert Commanday, the influential critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, has called for Blomstedt's removal--not now but when the remodeling of Davies Hall is complete.
Commanday says he admires the conductor, but enough is enough. He sounds a bit like the husband who says he loves his wife, but wants a divorce as soon as the kids are out of school.