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Is Strauss’ ‘Zarathustra’ sexist? L.A. Phil and Colburn play it two ways

Is Strauss’ ‘Zarathustra’ sexist? L.A. Phil and Colburn play it two ways
Australian conductor Simone Young makes her debut conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

On the surface anyway, Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch — the Overman or Superman — can be a little hard to stomach in 2019. These days it takes two to Zarathustra. A superman and a superwoman.

By a lucky and rare coincidence, that is exactly what we got last week when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Richard Strauss’ orchestral spectacular “Also Sprach Zarathustra” with the Colburn Orchestra at the Soraya on Thursday, and Simone Young led it the next day at Walt Disney Concert Hall to begin the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s weekend programs.

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It would be very easy to apply a glib gender spin on the difference between Salonen’s stunningly exuberant performance, which began with the famous “Sunrise” introduction (you know, “2001: A Space Odyssey”) sounding like futuristic supersonics, while Young’s achieved gracious glory sans all the boy stuff. There, though, is more to it than that.

First of all, the performances were of interest for straightforward news value. This was Salonen’s first appearance with the orchestra since his recent appointment to head a Colburn School conducting program. Two weeks earlier Salonen had, moreover, conducted “Zarathustra” in his first performances as the music-director designate of the San Francisco Symphony, the orchestra he takes over next year.

Across town in Salonen’s old digs, Young led her first performances with the L.A. Phil. (I heard the Saturday matinee.) Given that she has conducted at Los Angeles Opera and has been a female pioneer — the first woman to conduct the boys-club Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic, as well as the first woman to make a name for herself as a Wagner and Bruckner specialist — her debut with L.A. Phil was much belated.

Many factors that influenced the “Zarathustra” performances had nothing to do with gender, making comparisons dicey. The Colburn is a student orchestra, and “Zarathustra” was probably new to most if not all of the players. The L.A. Phil has had Strauss’ score in its repertory for 90 of the orchestra’s 100 years. In the late 1960s, the L.A. Phil all but branded itself with the “Sunrise,” thanks to Zubin Mehta’s breathtaking, best-selling recording — and, of course, “2001” mania.

Conjoining the Soraya, Cal State Northridge’s perfectly fine concert hall, with the exceptional Disney, is equally inappropriate. Plus an organ matters in “Zarathustra,” beginning with the amazing, body-blow low C organ pedal. Disney’s got the real goods; an electric organ was required for Soraya.

Although Salonen and Young are the same generation (60 and 57, respectively), they come from different ends of the Earth (Helsinki and Sydney, Australia, respectively) and have radically different sensibilities. But even that isn’t so simple. One of Young’s first major positions was conducting in Bergen, Norway. Salonen can’t stay away from California.

The real difference, and the interesting one, is that outside of Australia, Young’s career has been in Austria and Germany, and particularly in opera. She views Strauss in context with his tradition. Salonen, as a composer and modernist, looks for what he can use in Strauss.

If you really want to take gender out of the equation, in fact, the L.A. Phil’s principal guest conductor, Susanna Mälkki, made her debut with the orchestra conducting “Zarathustra.” Like Salonen (with whom she had once studied), Mälkki is a modernist and a Finn. And like Salonen’s, her Strauss favored transparency over transcendence. At the time, that seemed like a radical debunking of any Übermensch mentality.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Colburn Orchestra at the Soraya in Northridge.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Colburn Orchestra at the Soraya in Northridge. (Luis Luque)

I might have thus written off the whole gender issue had it not been for the radio broadcast of Salonen’s San Francisco “Zarathustra.” In his brief introduction to the performance, announcer Rik Malone gave what sounded like a trigger warning, noting that Nietzsche was “a notorious misogynist,” an unfortunate trait Strauss shared.

Maybe so, although the great American anarchist Emma Goldman once offered a feminist reading of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” by suggesting the German philosopher’s promulgation of rising above the concepts of master and slave meant the overcoming of tradition 19th century roles of men and women (despite Nietzsche’s ascribing a woman’s role as being to give birth to an Übermensch).

The great value of these two performances was, in the end, revealing just how complex an issue gender is, neither black and white, nor, for that matter, male or female. Salonen’s performance was gripping in part for its abstraction. He treated the score as pure music. He used Strauss’ elaborate orchestration as teaching tool, inspiring the outstanding young players to enthuse in its power of sound.

Young exulted in the gorgeous, blended L.A. Phil sound. She did not hold back on the climaxes. When Strauss slipped into an old-school Viennese waltz, she was very Viennese about it, whereas Salonen seemed more ironic. But for all her Wagnerian and Brucknerian grandeur, she sidestepped grandiosity. In the opposite of Mälkki, Young deflated the worst aspects of Strauss’ and Nietzsche’s masculine ego.

For further context, Salonen’s “Zarathustra” was preceded by an irresistibly antic performance of Strauss’ earlier tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, with Colburn clarinetist Cristina Mateo Sáez as a graciously prankish soloist.

Meanwhile, in a bid to recall yet more L.A. Phil history for its centennial season, Young opened her program with Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes” and his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Britten came to L.A. to conduct both of these works with the orchestra 70 years ago.

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The further tie-in was that the opening “Dawn” interlude of “Grimes” is also a sunrise, but here evocative of a mysterious illumination. Young’s “Grimes” was easily as breathtaking as her Strauss, but more nuanced in mood.

The British composer wrote Serenade 1943 when Übermensch meant only one chilling thing, and tenor Michael Slattery captured the slithery, uneasy character of these settings of classic British poems. L.A. Phil principal horn and Young’s fellow Australian Andrew Bain supplied the haunting oddness that gives the songs their discomfiting character.

That Young could then defang the Zarathustran Übermensch of its most objectionable connotations, de-masculinize it without emasculating it in the spirit of Emma Goldman, proved an achievement worthy of real potential social value.

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