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Esa-Pekka Mania

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
04/19/2009 -  
Stravinsky: Œdipus Rex – Symphony of Psalms
Rodrick Dixon (Oedipus), Anne Sofie von Otter (Jocasta), Ryan McKinny (Creon), Messenger (Tiresias), Daniel Montenegro (Shepherd), Viola Davis (Antigone), Sonja Kostich (Ismene)
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (music director), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Peter Sellars (director), Elias Sime (throne and mask designer), Dunya Ramicova (costume designer), James F. Ingalls (lighting designer), Diane Malecki (associate producer), Anne Dechene (production stage manager), Jenny Lazar (assistant stage manager)

Esa-Pekka Salonen (© Mathew Imaging/LA Philharmonic Association)

The ending began with an explosion of flash bulbs at the stage door amidst a riot of applause for this final performance by Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the LA Philharmonic. But the ending went on for a long time. The audience and the orchestra almost refused to let Salonen leave. Several of the women players carried in armloads of flowers. The winds and percussion brayed the tradition “tusch” for him. There was not a dry eye in the house. This event probably received more media coverage than any other in the history of classical music in Los Angeles. The attention was merited. The legacy is staggering. In this dark world it is amazing that classical music can be flourishing so brightly in a place like Los Angeles. We are all so fortunate.

The evening started with a screening of Salonen’s video tribute to the orchestra and the city. Then Philharmonic President Deborah Borda and Chairman David C. Bohnett came onstage to announce Salonen’s appointment as conductor laureate, the first such appointment in Los Angeles. Ms. Borda elegantly said that they wanted to say “goodbye but not farewell,” that they searched for the right way to thank him. And that he was too young to be “conductor emeritus.” They certainly set the stage for him to return often and significantly.

But the most striking aspect of the celebration was the extraordinary quality of the production and performance of these somber works by Stravinsky. It seemed like a strange choice of program, but ultimately proved to be so appropriate that it was ideal. Œdipus Rex, often a static oratorio, was perhaps as close to the spirit of Greek drama anything I have seen. This was high art. The changes and adaptations that Peter Sellars made took the piece back toward its origins, even if the costumes and staging were radical. The costumes were plain contemporary street clothes, with colors limited to a blue and green neutral palette. This had the effect of universality, suggesting a morality play. The king and his court sat on masked and antlered African thrones and chairs, which also emphasized the ageless, human quality of Œdipus Rex, perhaps the most universal of all dramas.

Sellars abandoned Stravinsky’s Jean Cocteau text and brought back some of the original Sophocles. He set the spoken narration in English and moved it to the character of Antigone, Œdipus’ daughter. The chorus and soloists sang in Latin. The narration, the narrator and the contrast to the singing were excellent. The story was absolutely clear at all times; the whole thing was wound up tight and then released itself into absolute tragedy, exactly as Greek drama must. The commandment that “Every human being will experience unbearable pain” was seared into memory.

The chorus was hardly onstage. They stood in the stairs and aisles, and moved around the hall with choreographed motions, gesturing with their arms or covering their eyes. The instruments were arranged differently on a flat stage, with a single broad riser behind for the thrones, the soloists and the action. There was a square of fluorescent tubing on the stage that Œdipus eventually entered. It lit up around him. The lighting design, changing focus to follow all of this movement, was well executed, given the technical limitations of a hall designed purely for music. Sellars effectively bound the two pieces together through the characters and the narrator, extending their presence into the Symphony of Psalms.

The musical performance benefited from Salonen’s previous experience with these challenging pieces, which have served as landmarks for him in earlier performances.

As the choristers moved about the hall, finally forming a complete circle with Salonen at the very center, he was forced to conduct in the round, 360°. It was a tour de force of impassioned finesse and precision. The first piece was great art and high tragedy; the second reconciled that tragedy, transcended it into the realm of the spirit. They were able to move from Oedipus tearing his own eyes out, to a kind of spiritual understanding of existence. It made me think of the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “Shantih shantih shantih” (The peace which passeth understanding). The important word was “Laudate”: praise. I imagine that Salonen wanted to express his gratitude for the life that he achieved here in Los Angeles. I can’t imagine a more eloquent expression than this production and his performance. He has much to be thankful for; and the city has trumpeted its own gratitude for him.

The events after the music stopped were also remarkable. In a sense, the audience and the city demanded to participate and were welcomed. There was a rhythmic ovation as all of the players went onstage to embrace the conductor. It is often been written that he was an “accidental conductor.” He was always a composer, but he had not really found his voice when he first came here. The science-fiction music that he wrote was eccentric and did not really have a place in the tradition. Now, he has created a place for it; and the world is wide open to him. The premiere of his Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz and performance of Beethoven Five last week left no room for doubt. The fact that he has built such a legacy at a mere 50 years old is most impressive. In a sense, his career is just beginning, but he has already accomplished this amazing feat. His appointment as conductor laureate is particularly ideal. He changed the city. He taught this bizarre community to love classical music, and to love new classical music. He helped create Disney Hall and then filled it world-class performance and an open-minded audience. He is a Finnish Leonard Bernstein to Los Angeles. People now come here from London and Paris for music, not for Hollywood. He has given us a place on the classical world stage, and that is a very strange achievement.

Thomas Aujero Small



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