Classical music online: Salonen, Sellars and Mozart

Times Music Critic

I do not unconditionally celebrate the Internet, particularly its intrusion into classical music. As replacements for the record store, Amazon and iTunes have become necessary evils. Typical commercial downloads are sonic shadows of the superior sound of CDs. Blogs ghettoize critics. YouTube is pretty much a toy.

But there was no denying the Internet’s potential as a genuine window onto the wider world this past weekend. Two recent European events of great interest to Angelenos went online, and that felt like a breakthrough.

Esa-Pekka Salonen turns 50 today. After plans for some kind of Hollywood Bowl celebration fell through, the Swedes stepped in with a wacky birthday tribute by the Swedish Radio Symphony earlier this month. That concert -- which began with a video clip of Salonen scratching his fingernails across a blackboard and ended with him wheeling a squealing Swedish actress offstage in a wheelbarrow and then jogging back to the podium to conduct a celestial performance of the final duet from “Der Rosenkavalier” -- can be seen for the next few weeks on the website of Swedish television channel SVT.


Meanwhile, Friday night, the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France opened with Peter Sellars’ shocking interpretation of Mozart’s early, unfinished opera, “Zaide,” and that too has gone online, courtesy of Medici Arts. Sellars directed the live webcast, and the site also offers his passionate, revelatory 15-minute introduction, in which he brilliantly explains what Mozart means to a modern world beset by poverty and divided between West and East.

The “Zaide” webcast is part of a new expansion of, which now includes selected programs from this summer’s Aspen and Aix festivals and which will, beginning July 18, add Switzerland’s Verbier Festival. The site also offers downloads of Medici Arts DVDs, including a stunning 1989 Mozart and Chopin recital in London by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter and a documentary on the premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Helicopter” Quartet at the 1995 Holland Festival.

But it is the “Zaide” webcast that best demonstrates the power of the Internet. Mozart wrote this singspiel (which means the dialogue is spoken) when he was 23, and left it incomplete. The subtitle is “The Harem,” and the plot takes its cue from an 18th century Viennese infatuation with all things Turkish, especially when they involved sultans and luscious slaves. Mozart broke off the composition just when the sultan Soliman has recaptured the escaped slave Zaide, after whom he lusts, and is about to extract horrible vengeance on her and her lover, Gomatz, who escaped with her. The composer then went on to write “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” in which everything could be turned into a joke.

Sellars relates “Zaide” to the modern-day slave trade and sets it in the kind of grimy warehouse where illegal immigrants are forced to sleep under their sewing machines and work 18-hour days. As Mozart delved into the issues of tyranny and mercy, of suffering and poverty, so must we, Sellars suggests in this overpowering production. His television direction is stark and gripping, favoring close-ups that highlight extreme expressions of pain and yearning by a young, brilliant multicultural cast.

Technically, the Medici webcast is decent -- not bad sound and, when blown up on a large monitor, video quality equivalent to that of a VHS. There are no frills, no Renée Fleming to host and take a peek backstage, as on the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts into movie theaters. But Sellars provides excellent subtitles and such dramatically strong video direction that the cutesy Met production style seems downright sophomoric by comparison.

The Salonen concert, for its part, must be watched on a much too small window, but it at least has OK sound. This is strictly for a Swedish audience, so a lot is lost on the rest of us, although I can’t imagine that the jokes by squealing actress Cecilia Frode, who hosts in various outlandish costumes, are all that sophisticated. But she does help to show a silly side of Salonen that -- other than the time he put on a bunny costume during a children’s concert at the Ojai Festival -- he has kept well closeted at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In the midst of all the merriment, though, is also a hugely appealing concert. A striking Swedish pop singer, Eva Dahlgren, sings an interesting song written for her by Anders Hillborg. Opera great Karita Mattila, scarily dressed, sings Sibelius. Anne Sofie von Otter and Miah Persson are the heavenly singers in the Strauss duet. But the webcast is there for all to watch, and it is better not to know what to expect.

That, of course, is something else about the Internet -- it doesn’t keep secrets. Salonen will return to Disney in September for his last season as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. He has scheduled meaningful programs, including two highly serious productions with Sellars. But thanks to streaming from Stockholm, we’ve got a pretty good idea that the bunny suit still fits.