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Music Review : Norrington Concert: The Primitive and the Precious

May 21, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It wasn't your average Thursday night with Beethoven and Berlioz at the Music Center. Not even close.

The gangly guest on the podium, making his belated debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was Roger Norrington. He doesn't follow the familiar rules.

A sometime fugitive from the rarefied world of ancient music, a former tenor, a distinguished musicologist and a champion of historical authenticity, he brings an independent stylistic perspective even to the so-called standard repertory. A quirky iconoclast and controversial individualist, he likes to shake up the status quo in dusty old concert halls.

The objects of his revisionist affection on this occasion were a pair of 19th-Century masterpieces: Beethoven's bracing Second Symphony and Berlioz's wild "Symphonie Fantastique." The Beethoven turned out to be so bracing it bordered on raucous. The Berlioz was so wild it teetered on the brink of dementia.

One certainly could worry about performances that constantly vacillated between the primitive and the precious. One could pine for the virtues of mellowness and gentle understatement. One could question the validity of a concept that imposed 19th-Century manners on 20th-Century practices (the two B's never dreamed that their music would be played on futuristic instruments in a house accommodating 3,000).

Still, one had to applaud Norrington's daring. His innovations were fascinating even when they weren't wholly convincing.

Norrington wanted to restage Beethoven and Berlioz--that is, to seat the orchestra in configurations comparable to what the composers might have expected. That meant placing the first and second violins at opposite sides of the conductor, basses at the left rear, and horns on high opposite the trumpets. Not incidentally, some Russian orchestras still observe similar patterns.

The results on this occasion imposed drastic separations of choirs. Norrington accentuated the obvious by encouraging wide, open, unresonant tone-production, especially from the brass. The timbres weren't particularly pretty, but they certainly were plangent.

The British maestro took characteristic liberties in the Beethoven, stretching phrases here, pushing tempos there. The rhetoric lumbered one moment, thundered the next. While the dynamic scale was always generous, the expressive scale varied from elegant to clunky.

The orchestra followed the visitor's eccentric urgings with obvious good will reinforced by considerable virtuosity. It didn't seem to matter that Norrington chose to sculpt the slow movements without a baton, that he sometimes substituted emotive mime for a clear beat, or that he overconducted some passages yet left the delineation of others virtually to chance.

Norrington played slower and looser with the Berlioz--which was written only 28 years after the comparably safe and sane Beethoven. No holds were barred, but many bars were held. And held. . . .

As Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch churned in their Gallic graves, Norrington, who conducts from memory, chopped the vast canvas into flashy little pieces. He focused the grotesquerie as if this were foreground music in a misplaced horror movie.

In the waltz episode, he placed four incidental harps--not the two heralded in Howard Posner's oddly conventional annotations--in front of the ensemble, as if they were solo instruments. The primary effect: disorientation.

Essentially, this "Fantastique" was vulgar. It was clumsy. It was imaginative. It was fun. And it was, if nothing else, fantastic.

Next week, the season ends as Norrington has his way with Haydn, via "The Seasons."

* Incidental intelligence:

Last week we pondered the mystery of the abrupt and possibly premature departure of Sidney Weiss, the orchestra's longtime principal concertmaster. His place was temporarily taken by Alexander Treger, listed in the official roster as just plain concertmaster.

The Philharmonic also employs an associate concertmaster and an assistant concertmaster. On Thursday, however, the first violinist's chair was womanned by an unannounced stranger, Bing Wang, who normally serves as principal second violinist of the Cincinnati Symphony.

A company spokesperson explained that Wang was being auditioned to replace the associate concertmaster, who is scheduled to take a sabbatical next season. Curiouser and curiouser. . . .

* Norrington repeats this program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $6-$50 at the box office , (213) 365-3500.

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