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COMMENTARY : Monster Concert Afterthoughts : The expensive musical experience of Van Cliburn, a trivial-pops program and the Three Tenors did more for star cults than culture.

<i> Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic</i>

The Monster Concerts are over. The dust is beginning to resettle. The fallout is beginning to dwindle. Life, believe it or not, goes on.

You remember the Monster Concerts. They bludgeoned us in mid-July, irrational byproducts of our international soccer celebrations. They may have done little for culture as we thought we knew it, but they did a lot for star cults.

First there was the Van Cliburn semi-show at Hollywood Bowl. Top ticket: $250. The beloved pianist from Texas via Moscow was attempting a comeback marathon at Hollywood Bowl. Unfortunately, something happened during the intermission. Cliburn got either lightheaded or cold-footed--it depends on who tells the tale.

In any case, he aborted the scheduled Rachmaninoff concerto, substituted four relatively easy solos and retreated apologetically.

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His mysterious affliction apparently lingered on. After Los Angeles, he drastically simplified the agenda for the remaining Monster Concerts on his tour.

Next came a trivial-pops spectacular at our 18,000-seat amphitheater in Cahuenga Pass, a mishmash uniting John Williams, Nelson Riddle, Itzhak Perlman, Linda Ronstadt and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Although the assembled disparities may have inspired aesthetic indigestion, hardly anyone complained. With the top ticket fetching $150, the public knew this concert just had to be good. Sure.

Finally, there was the most monstrous event of all. Lights. Cameras. Hype.

The ghost of P.T. Barnum, who once sold the diva Jenny Lind to America in tandem with elegant elephants, hovered over Dodger Stadium. So did a blimp. The Three Tenors--surely we don’t have to name them--were doing their hyper-florid thing for a ballpark audience of 53,000 (or 56,000, depending on whom you trust). Also for a television/video/radio/recording audience that, no doubt, will be tabulated in the zillions. Top ticket in the ravine rain forest: $1,012.

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Driving from the Westside, your foolhardy reporter allowed only two hours to reach the tenorissimos. It wasn’t enough. The freeways froze. When the shameful predicament was admitted in print, many readers proved less than forgiving.

Still, according to their letters (lots of letters), the tardy arrival (unprecedented in 29 years covering the beat) represented only the first of many critical sins. The others, in no particular order: failure to appreciate greatness, stupidity, arrogance, pomposity, pettiness, myopia, rudeness, unwillingness to “lighten up,” stubborn refusal to serve as a cheerleader, and an idiotic expectation of quality under conditions that obviously precluded quality.

Silly me. Here I thought I was just doing my job.

If the majority of correspondents are right, a critic isn’t supposed to describe and evaluate. A critic isn’t supposed to report subjective reactions, hopefully supported by objective details. A critic isn’t supposed to worry about what the composer wanted. A critic is supposed to sit back, relax, enjoy the ride--no matter how bumpy--and join the choir of push-button adulators.

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It would have been easy to dismiss the sing-along tenor show as a low-calorie bagatelle, if the pretensions hadn’t been so high. However, this patchwork program--unevenly performed and grotesquely distorted via very loud loudspeakers--was heralded as “the concert of the century.” It probably was, moreover, the most costly concert of the century. Under such lofty conditions, the application of serious criteria seemed not just appropriate but essential.

T he management banished the press to seats about a mile to the side of the stage, 18 rows back. (The illustrated 6-inch-by-10-inch tickets were marked $1,000.) The singers resembled distant ants from the vantage point assigned. A visual crutch was offered by DiamondVision, but mouth-movement on the screen resisted synchronization with the music. Everything worked better on TV, despite the endless fund-raising pitches and gushing inanities of a miscast commentator, Itzhak Perlman.

The official mementos of this Monster Concert, soon to be released, no doubt will be even more successful. Clever hands can splice in passages from the numerous retakes that masqueraded as encores after the show officially ended.

Still, one awful suspicion lingers. The greatest-hit parade might have been just as effective, and less expensive, if the sights and sounds had been prerecorded. The anonymous guys on the stage could have come from Central Casting. The faces on the screen could have been on film. The voices could have emanated from a CD.

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Apologists for the tenor circus--one of the protagonists among them--insist that such events create a new audience for opera. At least one pessimist fears that such events create little beyond a new audience for tenor circuses in general and for these tenors in particular.

The super-crowd at Dodger Stadium registered its pleasure at recognizing a tune by interrupting the music with applause. Never mind that the applause obliterated a not-so-high climax (conveniently transposed) or ruined the sacred strains of “Ave Maria.”

A generation ago, similar throngs adored another tenor, a phony operatic hero named Mario Lanza. For some reason, those throngs never seemed to go near an opera house. The non-converts never heard Jussi Bjorling, Giuseppe di Stefano and Franco Corelli. They never heard Richard Tucker, Mario del Monaco and Carlo Bergonzi.

Now, those were tenors. They didn’t pretend to be bigger than life. They didn’t have a P.T. Barnum--or a Tibor Rudas--in their corner. They didn’t trivialize their art.

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And, of course, they didn’t give Monster Concerts.


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