Casting a Musical Spell


Simon Rattle’s hair is nearly all gray. He is no longer the young conductor who grew up, in part, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was principal guest from 1981 to 1994. Now 45, he is at the top of his profession, having recently been named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic beginning in 2002. Since 1994, he has been Sir Simon, a Knight Bachelor. And it was as a knight in shining armor that he returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Thursday night.

The new century has been, thus far, a worrisome one for the orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen is on sabbatical. Subscribers have lost faith, and audiences have been small. Programming has been lackluster. Morale appears poor. The orchestra has gone an entire season without filling the important vacancies of principal cello and principal trumpet. Players and music lovers face a summer at the Hollywood Bowl where imagination has taken a vacation.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 3, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 3, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Music review--In a review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the May 27 Calendar, Simon Rattle was misidentified as principal guest conductor of the orchestra from 1981 to 1994. His tenure in that position ended in 1991. In addition, two singers and roles in Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortileges” were reversed: Mother and the Chinese Cup were sung by Marietta Simpson; Cynthia Clarey sang the roles of the White Cat and the Squirrel.

But Rattle, who is closing the Philharmonic’s season with two beguiling and substantial works of childhood wonder--Ravel’s short opera “L’Enfant et les Sortileges” and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony--reminds us of better times in our lives and the orchestra’s. And, more important, he brings a profound sense of renewal. The orchestra, when inspired, is still a great band that can put on a sensational concert. Thursday it was so inspired.


Ravel’s “L’Enfant” (The Child and the Magic Spell), with a libretto by Colette, has always been a bit too sophisticated musically to become a beloved children’s opera. In a temper tantrum, a young boy attacks his room and pets, and then, in a magical response, house and garden, bewitched, return the aggression. Furniture, china, books, fire and wallpaper come to life. The plant and animal kingdom ally against the child when not otherwise preoccupied (a highlight is an amorous cat duet in licentious meows).

For all of this, Ravel supplies a trunkful of musical antics and magic tricks that happen very, very quickly. In less than 45 minutes, 22 characters (cats, clock, dragonfly, frog, squirrel, shepherd, armchair, etc.), divided between eight soloists, pop up. A chorus (the Los Angeles Master Chorale) is needed, to bring a whole forest to life. The score is a succession of miniatures--Wedgwood teapot and Chinese cup join in a fox trot, shepherds and shepherdesses dance a bolero, fire sings a coloratura aria, old-man arithmetic torments the child with a patter song, the dragonfly gets a slow waltz.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world that means to puzzle and seduce at the same, sometimes confusing, time. Yet under all the craziness is sweetness. The child is chastened. Understanding nature makes him wise and human. But even the transforming rapture is so sudden that it may not, at first, fully sink in. Projected supertitles helped some, but proved hard to read in concert light.

Rattle conducted as if feasting on every delicious morsel of marvelous orchestral effect. And he had wonderful singers as accomplices. Rinat Shaham, a young Israeli mezzo-soprano who was recently in Opera Pacific’s “Marriage of Figaro,” portrayed the child with an electric energy and great focus. Even when seated and not singing, she never left character and, were attention not needed elsewhere, one could have fruitfully witnessed the entire opera through her reactions.

Heidi Grant Murphy brought exquisite beauty to the Princess and the bat. Francois Le Roux was a hilariously suave black cat; Julian Rodescu proved a perfect armchair of a singer; John Aler was a Monty Pythonesque teapot, mathematician and frog; Christine Brandes made a spectacular fire; Marietta Simpson shined in many roles, especially as a white cat and squirrel; Cynthia Clarey was the sympathetic mother and Chinese cup.

The Mahler Fourth that followed was an event. Angelenos have witnessed Rattle’s slow but steady maturity as a Mahler conductor over the years. He is now at the point where he has something special to say. He still projects a boyish enthusiasm, even raucousness, but he has added to his ebullience an extraordinary sense of detail and shaping. He now knows how to be free with the score without sounding indulgent. One is swept away but also constantly entering inside the music at the same time.


Rattle has also learned how to bring out the best in musicians. The Philharmonic’s playing, a horn bloop or two aside, was sumptuous, especially in the slow movement. In the last movement, Murphy was almost another Rattle, so much character and life did the soprano bring to the deceptively folk-like song.

With Rattle now on the verge of becoming the world’s most-in-demand conductor (if he isn’t already), this weekend (and next at the Ojai Music Festival, where he will be music director) is the time to find out why. The demands of his new life will mean that the chances of him continuing much of a presence on the West Coast grow inevitably slim.


* Simon Rattle and the Los Angeles Philharmonic repeat this program tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $15-$70. (323) 850-2000.