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SALZBURG DIARY : A Bad Night for Salonen, Philharmonic

August 10, 1992|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SALZBURG, Austria — The rains finally came to festive, air-conditionless Mozart country on Saturday. Relief at last.

Well, relief of sorts.

The summer swelter continues for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They made a seemingly auspicious debut at the Grosses Festspielhaus last Thursday, with only a few isolated booers dampening the delight of a generally enthusiastic audience. Now the first reviews have hit the stands, and there is rain on the Southern California parade.

It is easy, of course, to find rationalizations for the bad news. Some of the Austrian and German critics are admittedly offended by the experimental, youth-oriented priorities of Gerard Mortier, who is attempting to exorcise the snobbish, conservative, glamour-cult image developed here for 30 years by the all-powerful, much revered Herbert von Karajan.

Some critics still seem to regard all things American as cheap plastic imitations of priceless European treasures. Salzburg, in any case, has been spoiled for decades by the best that Vienna and Berlin have to offer.

Most important, perhaps, Salonen may have miscalculated the impact of his opening agenda: an odd combination of highly disparate Austrian compositions that, even in a Los Angeles tryout, failed to reflect the maestro's artistic profile in the best light. A few visitors to Hollywood Bowl actually had complained that Johann Strauss' "Emperor Waltz" sounded anachronistic and straitjacketed, that the Berg Violin Concerto sounded oddly muted, and that much of the Mahler Fourth seemed willfully mannered.

Still, nothing prepared us for the Salzburg reviews. To call them "mixed" would be an act of ridiculously generous optimism.

"One can argue about American taste," began the critic from the Vienna Presse, who signed his notice simply as jach . "The report from the Grosses Festspielhaus must be rather negative," he continued. "The bizarre idea of playing the 'Emperor Waltz' as a prelude to the Berg Violin Concerto was obviously well intended as a bow to the host country. . . . But what really did not work is the manner in which Salonen wanted his musicians to play this music. The young maestro lacks the right rhythmic sense for such a challenge, and he tried to compensate with creative intervention that distorted the original beyond recognition. This was a waltz for asthmatics."

Herr (or is it Frau?) jach went on to praise Kyung-Wha Chung, the soloist in the Berg, but complained that "no independent impulse emanated from the orchestra, which played no more than decently." In the Mahler, Salonen was accused of ignoring the composer's specific markings, and the Philharmonic was downgraded for a lack of discipline.

Karl Harb of the Salzburger Nachrichten wasn't scandalized by the waltz. "Why," he asked with a rhetorical hint of condescension, "shouldn't it sound a bit like Hollywood?" He lauded Salonen's daring, and his ear for detail. Then came the blow: In the Berg, "everything seemed dull, carefully spelled out but not deeply felt and organically developed."

The Mahler? "Tired and dry." Harb also found serious fault with the orchestra: "Technical inadequacies, imprecision, a disastrous oboe entrance." He admitted that "one would overlook such blemishes if genuinely vital music were being made, but, surprisingly, Salonen seldom rose above the mere reproduction of notes."

"Music From U.S. Drug Stores" was the headline over Thomas Gabler's review in the Neue Kronenzeitung. He said the debut of "the Finnish wonder-conductor had been awaited with much excitement, but his appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic turned out to be less than brilliant. . . . The expected sensation did not occur." The Strauss waltz, he writes, sounded "cold and gaudy," and the orchestra struck Gabler as "insecure" in the "sterile" Mahler.

Peter Vujica of the Vienna Standard invoked an interesting contextual shade: a famous chef transplanted to lotus land from pristine Austria. Salonen's "Emperor Waltz," according to Vujica, "had as much in common with Johann Strauss as Wolfgang Puck's menu at Chinois has in common with China." In the same vein, Vujica claimed that Salonen turned Berg and Mahler into Austrian expatriates--and not to their advantage.

Werner Schuster of the Vienna Kurier attacked Salonen for being a "brash whiz kid" who commands much flash but little substance. The critic acknowledged the conductor's youthful daring and his technical prowess, not to mention the orchestra's "excellence." Nevertheless, he bemoaned an "Emperor Waltz" "conducted against the grain, a blurrily painted Berg concerto and a Mahler symphony . . . that nearly resembled a brat's prank."

As George Bernard Shaw once observed, "a critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned." He practiced, of course, what he preached. Still, not all was lost in Salzburg.

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