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Boulez is a perfect fit

In the conductor's first Disney Hall appearance with the L.A. Philharmonic, he makes the space his own in a challenging program of Mahler and Wagner.

December 01, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

By enlarging our view of the world through working with gestures and shapes, Pierre Boulez and Frank Gehry have, to a remarkable extent, made modern music and architecture unthinkable without them. It is not so much the material -- be it abstract chord or a tactile sound for the musician, abstract angle or tactile substance for the architect -- as the striking, unpredictable and curiously appealing implications Boulez and Gehry find in the basic building blocks of their art

They are good friends -- Boulez had Thanksgiving dinner at Gehry's house last week -- but Gehry also jokes that they speak different languages, noting that the French composer and conductor doesn't really know how to talk to an architect. That may be. But for Boulez's first appearance conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night, Boulez demonstrated that he knows how to communicate with, and through, great architecture.

The program was a deep investigation of last thoughts, containing Mahler's and Wagner's most advanced and spiritually questing music. It began with the profoundly affecting Adagio of Mahler's 10th Symphony, the first movement and the only part of the score that was completed when the 51-year-old composer succumbed to a heart infection in 1911. Boulez followed that with a concert performance of the second act to Wagner's mystical final opera, "Parsifal."

Boulez did not create this program specially for Disney. He is doing the same pieces with the Cleveland Orchestra in Cleveland and New York this season. This summer he will conduct "Parsifal" in a new production at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany that is already causing controversy since the director Christoph Schlingensief has a reputation for outrageous satire and provocative political street theater.

However bizarre that "Parsifal" turns out to be, it cannot be anything but illuminating. As he proved Friday, Boulez has exceedingly clear thoughts about Wagner's opera and he can adapt to challenging circumstances.

It might seem strange, given the illuminating nature of the Disney acoustic, to suggest that it was a less than ideal environment for this concert. But Wagner had a radically different sound in mind. He built the theater in Bayreuth for mystification. The pit extends under the stage, so that the orchestra will be unseen and sound mysterious.

In the democratic Disney, where what you see is aurally what you get, there is no place to hide. Boulez compensated by lowering the orchestra risers and by placing the vocal soloists on a platform behind the orchestra. This made the singers feel distant (although not to listeners on the sides of the hall) but provided a good balance.

Indeed, the singers had it easier than they would in a typical opera house where the pit is not so submerged and where they have to fight the orchestra.

Not surprisingly, Boulez took to Disney immediately. His conducting is the model of musical illumination, of making not only every orchestral utterance sound fresh and every instrumental color gleam.

And nothing in a Boulez performance exists for its own sake. In both Mahler and Wagner, Boulez led performances of implication, demonstrating how Mahler found an enormous amount of expression in only a couple of short melodic ideas, how Wagner built complex dramatic and philosophical complexes out of the basic themes that denote his characters.

The Wagner act begins with Parsifal still clueless of his mission as a knight of the Holy Grail. He finds self-awareness as he overcomes the magical spell of the evil Klingsor, resists the erotic allure of the Flower Maidens, and confronts that strange fallen temptress Kundry. Fast and clean, Boulez's performance was its own magic flower garden of riveting orchestral details.

The three solo singers all performed without score but made no attempt to theatrically enter into character. Thomas Moser may not be an ideally radiant heroic tenor, but he was a noble Parsifal and one who did not sound strained. The Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana was said to be suffering a vocal ailment. Missing, perhaps, was the full voluptuousness of her voice, but she was a searing Kundry nonetheless. Willard White's powerful presence brought an imposing sense of dignity to Klingsor.

The six solo Flower Maidens along with the women of the Pacific Chorale were less seductive than correct, but then you rarely hear this music sung correctly on stage, and it is far more beautiful when it is.

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