Phil reaches deep for a substitute

Times Staff Writer

Because of a scheduling problem and thanks to a noble willingness to present a major new work it commissioned as the creators insist it should be presented, the Los Angeles Philharmonic did something over the weekend it originally had no intention of doing: It sent its audience home happy after a great, exhilarating performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

And -- irony of ironies -- on an evening that had been set aside to ponder the profundities of Simone Weil, the French writer and philosopher who starved herself to death during World War II, psychically unable to eat while others went hungry, Acura, a Philharmonic sponsor, laid out complimentary pastries after the Saturday night concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The Philharmonic had expected to open its new season -- following the Thursday night gala -- with Kaija Saariaho’s disturbing, meditative “La Passion de Simone.” But when Peter Sellars, who staged the premiere in Vienna, convinced the orchestra late last spring that the work needed to be fully staged in Disney as well, it turned out that a dancer and the lighting designer were not available this weekend, and the “Passion” was rescheduled for next season.

The program Esa-Pekka Salonen chose as a replacement seemed unambitious. Rather than a major Saariaho score we haven’t heard -- she gave the Boston Symphony a glorious new cello concerto this year, for instance -- Beethoven’s super-popular symphony became the big number. The concert opened with two chamber pieces: Luciano Berio’s orchestration and completion of Contrapunctus XIX from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” and Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen.”


Unambitious, maybe, but not superficial. Salonen here demonstrated that there is more than one way to question the meaning of existence. He introduced Saturday’s concert by noting that the evening proceeded from personal tragedy (the Bach) to global tragedy (the Strauss) to cosmic Beethoven, a symphony he said goes beyond aesthetics, that is a biological phenomenon.

Bach’s fugue is a deathbed scribble. The manuscript reveals his hand falling away from the page. Composers and musicologists have completed the fugue for him, but most performers prefer to stop where Bach did. Berio offered something uniquely poignant. He filled the empty final bars with a haunting chord, its pitches based on the notes B-A-C-H (H is B flat). Berio prepared for this moving, mystical chord through an intense, pastel orchestration, thick in winds, including two saxophones. The sound, to my ears, was that of the spirit leaving the body, made all the more touching by the fact that Berio wrote this in 2001, shortly before his own death.

“Metamorphosen” is more melancholic music. Written for 23 solo strings in 1945, this too is autumnal music (Strauss died four years later), a requiem of sorts for the destruction of the composer’s beloved opera house in Munich. He mourns a lost culture, and a kind way to look at “Metamorphosen” is to credit Strauss with demonstrating meaningful regret for his own collaboration with the Nazis.

He wasn’t, however, a broken man, and the arresting feature of “Metamorphosen” is its sure sense of society. The solo strings are not soloists. The piece makes a thick clotted sound. Salonen seated the orchestra tightly to achieve a maximum sense of instrumental texture. But he did not take the easy route, which is to play up the nostalgic beauty of Strauss’ writing or to luxuriate in the strings.


The timing (at nearly 30 minutes) was on the slow side, but the feeling was one of urgency. Twenty years ago, and still in his 20s, Salonen recorded “Metamorphosen” in Sweden. He was faster by the clock but much more ponderous, a young man probing serious issues, looking at Strauss in either/or terms as a figure who helped create 20th century art and who participated in its near destruction.

Saturday’s performance was deeper without trying so hard. Salonen sought vivid playing, especially bringing out the basses. Where he seemed to have answers in his approach to this music 20 years ago, he now recognizes that questions can’t always be answered.

Salonen’s description of Beethoven’s Seventh as a biological phenomenon was meant to indicate that this is music all about being alive, celebrating existence. Allowing ourselves to be receptive to tragedy can make us feel closer to life. But nothing matches dancing in the streets, and Wagner famously proclaimed the Seventh as “the apotheosis of dance.” In fact, Salonen’s extraordinary performance was, I thought, more physics than biology. This was the most rhythmically exciting performance of the symphony I’ve ever heard, and the momentum he produced felt like the force of gravity. The interpretation had a wealth of detail. The syncopated accents were so strong as to possibly create momentary arrhythmia in a listener’s heartbeat.

You accept this kind of Beethoven or you do not. No middle ground is possible. The audience accepted en masse. It went wild.