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A maestro of another age

With impeccable style, former L.A. Philharmonic director Carlo Maria Giulini treated music as if it were a religion.

June 17, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

A strange thing happened when I heard the news Wednesday morning that Carlo Maria Giulini had died at age 91. I immediately went to my overstuffed CD shelves, to the floor and closet stacks, looking for something to listen to conducted by the former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. But I could find almost nothing -- none of his L.A. Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony recordings. I thought I owned them all.

Somewhere, but who knows where, I must still have Giulini's great Verdi and Mozart opera recordings from the '50s and '60s, although most are old LPs molding away in storage. What about the profoundly spiritual Chicago Symphony Mahler Ninth, a recording I loved but haven't heard for years? It must be somewhere in CD chaos.

Like so many other local music lovers, I spent happy evenings at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the glow of this graceful, probing, high-minded musician. He had a thing for, and a way with, ninth symphonies, the last symphonic testaments of Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert and Dvorak. He made them radiate something indefinable. Verdi's last opera, "Falstaff," was not, under Giulini, especially witty, but it was wonderfully wise.

OK, maybe he took himself a little too seriously, but he was a poet -- and pope -- of the podium.

He was also of another era and culture. He represented the sophisticated Italy of impeccable tailoring, impeccable manners, impeccable musicianship. Every note he conducted had to have meaning. Music was a calling, a religion.

But as time passed, Giulini has come to seem distant, remote, no longer relevant, maybe even a little quaint. These days, Pierre Boulez's unsentimental, musically revelatory -- and if truth be told, far more impeccably played -- Mahler Ninth with Chicago is the recording to have.

It's been all too easy to lose track of Giulini and his recordings in the two decades since he left L.A. (and many of his L.A. recordings are out of print). Certainly there will be forthcoming Giulini rereleases. And I can't imagine that the tremendous warmth and humanity -- and forgotten vigor -- in his early Mozart, Verdi and Rossini opera recordings won't still shine like a beacon in dark times.

Giulini wasn't in L.A. for a terribly long period -- less than seven years, from 1978 to 1984. He was never one of us. I remember on the couple of occasions I visited him at his home in the Hollywood Hills how strange he seemed. Stepping through the door felt like being instantaneously transported to Italy. What you saw out the window was the downtown skyline; what you experienced indoors or on his lovely patio was a formal, gracious host -- and maestro -- of another age.

He had been a violist in Italy before taking up the baton. He had also been an anti-Fascist who spent the last year of World War II in hiding in Rome, in constant danger and fear. He had a lot of time to think.

Those two seemingly unrelated things, he once told me, revealed everything you needed to know about him as a conductor. The viola is an instrument in hiding in the orchestra, and Giulini's mission, he said, became to reveal it and what it represented. In practical terms, that meant bringing out the Philharmonic's lower, often quieter voices. He got the violas and cellos to really dig in, which had an amazing effect in the Chandler, where those sonorities had been especially muffled. The orchestra developed a miraculous richness.

It would be foolish to claim that Giulini was without an ego, that he was somehow beyond the world. He did manage to avoid dealing with many of life's practical matters; his wife took care of his business dealings (and shrewdly). But the Philharmonic's then general director, Ernest Fleischmann -- who, in an amazing feat of statesmanship, persuaded Giulini to come to Los Angeles -- recounts that he was as actively involved in the running of the Philharmonic as any other music director. In fact, he made more demands than most, and he got his way more often than most.

Nor did Giulini lack style. The elegant suits that fit him perfectly, the way he combed his hair, his soulful eyes, his charming manners, his constant harping on his higher purposes and the heart all hinted at a bit of the Hollywood hustle. And that made some East Coast critics suspicious. They found his piety pretentious and his conducting slack. That is a judgment I think unfair but not incomprehensible. By the time he left Los Angeles, however, I was happy to see the orchestra move on to Andre Previn, who seemed less remote, one of us.

I now understand, without having realized it at the time, that we no longer needed Giulini. He gave the orchestra and Los Angeles a sense of purpose. He kept us under a beneficent spell. He didn't act of this world, but he gave the orchestra the substance and the confidence to be of this world, which is where it belongs.

We've moved on. I doubt Giulini would have liked conducting in the transparent Walt Disney Concert Hall. He needed a certain amount of mystery, hoodoo even, to make his effect. That side of him I don't miss. I am curious, though, to someday revisit the old recordings to see how they hold up beyond the inevitable nostalgia factor.

One disc I was able to locate was Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, which Giulini recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic shortly after he left Los Angeles. The performance all but oozes incense, so mystically intent is the interpretation.

But the playing is rapt, deliciously lyrical and, in the end, captivatingly sensual. It is misty-eyed Bruckner, to be sure, but the monumental slow movement -- one of the longest and greatest Adagios in the symphonic literature -- glows with an inner light that only Giulini knew how to kindle. It is misty-eyed Bruckner illuminated by a thousand candles.

Unable to stop myself, I just played the Adagio three times in a row.

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