The sets for "Tristan und Isolde" and "Macbeth" safely stored and awaiting further use behind the fire curtain, the Los Angeles Philharmonic continues its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion season this week by observing Christmas.
The initial performance of the first of two programs devoted to Bach's "Christmas" Oratorio was played and sung in front of the curtain, on the raised orchestra pit, actually within the Pavilion house. And, under the careful leadership of Christopher Hogwood, played and sung splendidly.
These four performances of the first three cantatas that make up what the composer called his "Weihnachts Oratorium," began Tuesday (and end Sunday); Parts IV-VI will be given Wednesday and Dec. 19. In the concerts this week, Hogwood uses four vocal soloists, an orchestra of 34 players, and 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Despite some muddying of textures, and occasional overplaying by the instrumental ensemble--or was it undersinging by the soloists?--the first performance emerged consistently vigorous, sometimes touching and in moments inspirational.
While its colleagues are playing "Tristan" on alternate nights in the Pavilion, this contingent of Philharmonic members is giving stylish and affectionate readings to some of Bach's more joyful religious expressions. The British conductor continues his ostensible proselytizing for the questionable practice of mounting small-scale works in large auditoriums. This time, with the performers virtually in the laps of the audience, such proselytizing seemed almost justifiable.
Still, the kinds of clarity and transparency one would hope for seldom became part of this event. Uncharacteristically, the L.A. Master Chorale unit appeared timid in attack; as is sometimes the case, its words emerged mushy and poorly enunciated, though the sound it produced was mellow and effortlessly blended. Those adjectives also apply to the Philharmonic body's contributions. Perhaps placement gave the instrumentalists the advantage; they consistently, if never disastrously, overpowered their vocal colleagues.
Neatly guided by the (this time) benignly unobtrusive conducting of Hogwood, the four vocal soloists met a high standard.
In his L.A. Philharmonic debut, the British tenor Laurence Dale sang sweetly, incisively and impassionedly, by turns, in the important curlicues of the Evangelist's role. Soprano Mary Rawcliffe made handsome and expressive sounds in her infrequent opportunities. David Thomas, a regular Hogwood principal, brought verbal point and surprising basso mellowness to a variety of Bachian challenges. And a new Canadian mezzo, Catherine Robbin, impressed through her easy, pretty and light--if sometimes textually unconnected--singing.