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Salonen’s Concert and Slide Show

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It wasn’t just another Tuesday night at Hollywood Bowl.

After seven weeks with eight guests of various capabilities manning his podium (and, alas, none womanning it), Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He even brought along Gidon Kremer, a bona fide stellar soloist (contrary to popular impression, stars don’t always shine at Cahuenga pass).

Our youthful music director, sporting a trim new haircut, used the occasion--the first of four--to preview (rehearse) some of the repertory scheduled for the orchestra’s Europe tour, which begins in Helsinki on Aug. 27. At the end of the program he also offered a surprise in the form of a slide show.

The excuse for the unexpected and, we think, unprecedented art-appreciation class in the wide open spaces was a performance of Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” symphony of 1934. The music is derived from Hindemith’s opera of the same name, which examines the aesthetic, political, intellectual and spiritual dilemmas facing Mathias (a.k.a. Mathis) Grunewald as he painted the Isenheim Altar.

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There can be no question that Grunewald’s bold 16th-Century images of the crucifixion--images that were to influence all manner of 20th-Century expressionism--were central to Hindemith’s inspiration. Nevertheless, his music represented a remote abstraction, at best, of Grunewald’s art. Salonen made the mistake of trying to make the connections between sound and sight literal.

A series of 50 overviews and details from the Isenheim masterpiece were projected on all-too small screens at either side of the Bowl proscenium. The pictures did not enhance the performance. In fact they distracted from its impact, reducing the symphonic contribution to a background soundtrack and, even worse, suggesting visual relationships unsupported by the music.

The innocent viewer was led to believe, for instance, that one fleeting passage illustrated a specific detail from Grunewald’s “Concert of Angels” or that a certain contrapuntal melody actually represented “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” The distant slide of the moment may have been fascinating, but it also was misleading.

In this context, the score had to be trivialized by the art. The projections constantly contradicted the moods, dynamic structure and development so carefully delineated by the composer. For all their undeniable significance and pathos, the visual aids were ultimately misplaced.

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In his brief introductory remarks, Salonen announced that he would like to conduct Hindemith’s complete opera in Los Angeles soon. That, of course, would be a far more illuminating, far better-focused tribute to both Hindemith and Grunewald.

If the Bowl performance can be regarded as a down-payment, the prospects for eventual excellence are excellent. With eyes closed, it was easy to appreciate the hot heroic sweep and the cool analytical precision enforced by Salonen. It also was reassuring to hear the mighty Philharmonic play for its boss with equal degrees of bravura and finesse. Well, almost equal.

The first and more conventional half of the program was devoted to Salonen’s countryman, Sibelius. The maestro used “Finlandia” as a stately overture. Then he accompanied Kremer in a rather unsettling performance of the hum-along Violin Concerto.

Kremer, outfitted in a black shirt and yellow dinner-jacket, seemed subdued if judged by his own flamboyant standards. Perhaps he was too busy reading the score to indulge in his usual emotive acrobatics. His playing, in any case, turned out to be exquisite one moment, haphazard the next, sometimes excruciatingly elegant, sometimes annoyingly fussy. Salonen and the orchestra provided essentially neutral, occasionally plodding support.

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One couldn’t help comparing this uneven, aggressively theatrical performance with the serene, refreshingly lyrical one mustered recently by young Sarah Chang with the San Diego Symphony under Yoav Talmi. Sometimes, as St. Anthony said (or was it Arnold Schwarzenegger?), less is more.

Incidental intelligence:

* In the program magazine, Ernest Fleischmann, the Philharmonic’s top administrative guru, called Gidon Kremer “probably the most interesting of the world’s great violinists.” One wonders what that judgment does for the other fiddlers on our orchestral roof.

* Bing Wang served as concertmaster in the Sibelius concerto. Her name does not appear in the official Philharmonic roster.

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* When Salonen and the Philharmonic take “Mathis der Maler” to Helsinki, London and Frankfurt, the slide show will be left at home.

* The Bowl concert was embellished with six airplane ostinatos, one conspicuous wine-bottle crescendo on the concrete steps, and cheers from yet another modest midweek audience, this one tabulated at 8,127.


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