No-show bug must be going around

Times Staff Writer

It seemed like a perfect -- and perfectly balanced -- week for the piano, the musical equivalent of Apollo and Dionysus appearing at the same party. On March 15, the stately, golden-toned Murray Perahia was to perform a recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The following night, the romantic, impetuous Martha Argerich would lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto.

Neither event, as it turned out, would come to pass.

Both Perahia and Argerich canceled -- Perahia with hand trouble, Argerich after a gallbladder operation -- joining a striking number of concert and opera musicians this season who have been too sick to perform.

“They come in waves,” says Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president. “We’ve been lucky for the last four or five years. But it’s been a tidal wave.”

In fact, at the end of last week the orchestra announced the 10th cancellation of its season: Helene Grimaud, a young French pianist, was to play Rachmaninoff this Thursday and Sunday but canceled because of the aftereffects of pneumonia. (Andre Watts will appear in her stead.) Those shows were to bookend a Randy Newman concert Saturday night at Disney Hall. But that was postponed until November because Newman broke his wrist.

The Philharmonic is hardly alone. James Levine, the popular conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, canceled the remainder of his season with the Met, as well as concerts and a tour with the BSO, after an onstage fall and ensuing shoulder surgery. Seiji Ozawa of the Vienna State Opera dropped out of concerts because of shingles. Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has failed to meet several commitments over the last year -- including the San Francisco Opera premiere performances of John Adams’ new opera, “Doctor Atomic” -- because of a lower back injury. Placido Domingo canceled several Met performances in February, as well as appearances elsewhere as “Parsifal,” because of an inflamed windpipe. And so on.


So how are the Philharmonic and other organizations coping with this slew of no-shows?

“You have to stop doing everything that you’re doing -- immediately,” says Chad Smith, who became the Philharmonic’s vice president of artistic planning in January right as the trouble began. “You have to make sure Thursday night’s concert happens” -- and is up to the standards the audience, conductor and players are accustomed to.

“I think when you panic you usually make the wrong decision,” says Laurence Tucker, director of artistic planning at the Seattle Symphony. “If it was easy, they wouldn’t need me.”

For the producing organization, a cancellation means not only the rapid issuing of a news release and the dispatching of hundreds of apologetic postcards. It also means scrambling to find a replacement. That can entail not only bundling a budding diva, say, onto a red-eye, but also searching for available hotel space.

Some administrators try to look on the bright side.

“Because we plan two and three years in advance,” says Jeremy Rothman, artistic administrator at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, “it’s an opportunity to do something current: ‘This person has just been discovered.’ ” But, he adds, “No one looks forward to it.” This year, he has had to deal with gaps in the Baltimore schedule created after his artistic director, Yuri Temirkanov, decided to take four weeks off after the death of a close friend.

Though early 2006 has seen a remarkable number of cancellations, this is by no means the first time there’s been a rash of ailing musicians. Borda recalls a period in the early ‘90s when the New York Philharmonic, which she then headed, saw so much ill health among visiting musicians that “even the replacement would cancel.”

She grew accustomed to coming onstage to break bad news. “I was on the stage so much it became humorous,” she says. “When I walked out, people would groan.” Before a New Year’s Eve gala for which guests had paid as much as $250 to see Olga Borodina, the news of the diva’s cancellation came so suddenly -- Borda was getting dressed for the event -- that she had to tap her dinner date, Marilyn Horne, to sing with about an hour’s notice.

Some administrators make a joke of it: Rudolf Bing, the longtime Metropolitan Opera general manager, once announced a cancellation wearing a Viking helmet and toting a shield, as if to repel the audience’s fury.

Much of the time, locating a substitute is not particularly hard. For conductors -- both an orchestra’s permanent leader and guests -- organizations typically have backups ready. They also hire “cover” artists for difficult vocal pieces and for contemporary works not likely to be known by a large number of musicians.

But sometimes a substitution can be tricky. In February, the young British composer Thomas Ades was preparing to conduct a suite of music from his new opera based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at Disney Hall. Two days before rehearsals were set to begin, the Philharmonic heard that soprano Kate Royal was canceling because of illness.

“There are exactly four sopranos on the planet who have sung that music,” Smith says. “I know Tom’s music well, so I knew who these sopranos were.”

But one of them couldn’t get out of a performance in London, and another was tied up in Seattle. The third potential replacement was in Denmark and available but was expected to have visa problems. “On that one,” Smith says, “I actually sweated.”

It was only when he remembered that Santa Fe Opera is scheduled to perform the work this summer that he realized another singer, somewhere, might have started learning the music. Patricia Risley, slated to sing the work in July and August, was performing in Minnesota but flew in to replace Royal.

The pressure comes partly because orchestras try to keep the program unchanged after a cancellation. Audiences, after all, are as likely to purchase tickets for the repertoire as for the performers.

Otherwise, Rothman says, “it’d be like going to a movie and have them change the film on you because a reel’s broken. The music is what’s survived for so many years. That’s what comes first when we have to make a change.”

Opera, in general, is less vulnerable to cancellations because productions tend to emphasize the ensemble. But things can still go wrong. Christopher Koelsch, director of artistic planning at Los Angeles Opera, recalls 2000’s rehearsals for “Peter Grimes,” during which Philip Langridge, a celebrated Grimes, was poised between sickness and health. He could probably make opening night -- but only if the company would allow him time to recover during the dress rehearsal. So another tenor flew in from New York to fill in at that rehearsal, then was sent home -- and Langridge opened the opera without incident.

This season, the Philharmonic’s experience with Perahia and Argerich shows the range of possibilities. Perahia, who on his doctor’s advice dropped out of his entire tour, was deemed irreplaceable, and the recital was simply canceled. But Argerich -- whose cancellations, health-related and otherwise, are legendary -- was replaced by a young fellow Argentine who had recently won the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award and was starting to build up steam. Ingrid Fliter’s bittersweet interpretation of the Beethoven drew cheers from audiences and strong reviews.

The possibility of surprise or disaster, after all, is what makes attending a live performance different from putting on a record or watching a movie.

“These are the kinds of jobs where you don’t know what you’ll deal with when you come to work each day,” Rothman says. “That’s what keeps it exciting. There’s always something to keep us on our toes.”