Contrary to the belief of just about every music director on the planet, Beethoven's 70-minute Ninth Symphony is neither too short nor too one-dimensional to stand alone. But if it must have a prelude, Schoenberg's "A Survivor From Warsaw" may be the perfect companion.
Or so Esa-Pekka Salonen suggested, opening the Los Angeles Philharmonic's subscription season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday with that unusual, if not unprecedented, pairing. This is not truly an odd couple, although a compact, 12-tone piece about the Holocaust might seem the ultimate negation of Beethoven's expansive Romantic declaration that "all mankind are brothers."
Remember that Schoenberg's piece, after all, is about survival--of one person, yes, but also of the human spirit. The orchestra may seethe with harsh demonic energies, and the narrator may cry out at the horror of it all, but it is the seemingly hapless victims who have the last word, as the male chorus sings the ancient Jewish admonition "Schema Jisroel."
Remember also that Beethoven begins his symphony in dark turbulence. His ultimate affirmation is not simply proclaimed but is hard-won from chaos and strife.
This was an uncompromisingly dramatic concert. A program insert told us there would be no intermission and requested the withholding of applause after "A Survivor From Warsaw." It could not prepare us for the wonder of the moment, however, when Salonen, his arms outstretched from Schoenberg's final thrust, dropped immediately into Beethoven's mysterious portents and furies.
That required the cooperation of narrator Leonard Nimoy and the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and it kept latecomers to the already late-starting program out in the lobby. Eventually, though, the rest of the chorus and the soloists had to come on, and it was the slow movement that paid the deferred price. The inevitable relaxation there of attentions so tightly focused divested the movement of its wonted luminous glow. That was the only letdown of the evening, however. As a statement about orchestral prowess and artistic ambition, this was a powerfully positive opener.
The fleeting ensemble incongruities were easily swept under by the overall eloquence and strength of the performances. Salonen's Ninth has become a thoroughly considered, personally shaped marvel of nuance, and the Philharmonic responded lithely to every tapering phrase, every shift in balance and momentum.
The Master Chorale proved equally committed to Salonen's acutely detailed articulation scheme. It encompassed Beethoven's demanding range and dynamic requirements with skill, character and flexible sound.
The men of the chorale also did Schoenberg proud. They began the performance with their backs to the audience, pivoting about at their musical entrance, as a faceless mob of prisoners became a singing people. The music was overwhelming.
In their Philharmonic debuts, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone William Stone carried off their solos within traditional parameters of bravura heartiness. Soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo Marietta Simpson joined them in the ensembles, often murky in the flutter of four vibratos. Nimoy brought compelling naturalness to his aggressively amplified narration of Schoenberg's "Survivor."