He was greeted warmly by the large but less than capacity audience Saturday night in Disney Hall and immediately displayed his wonted charm, taking microphone in hand and providing cogent and droll opening remarks. It was good to have him back.
The magic pretty much stopped there. Blame the program. In hindsight, it seemed a miscalculation by a conductor (justly) celebrated for his programming. It happens.
On one level, the program was too modest. Salonen began with the U.S. premiere of his pal Magnus Lindberg’s “Graffiti,” a formidable chunk of busy blather that necessarily focused a listener’s attention on the music itself rather than the man conducting it. The second half featured a concert performance of Bartók’s only opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which again, though supplying the maestro with some moments in the limelight, left him a secondary character in the proceedings for much of the time.
What’s more, to these ears at least, the Lindberg was a mess (more anon) and the Bartók, though a bona fide masterpiece, does not a concert opera make (also more anon).
Still, none of this would have mattered, perhaps, had the performances compelled. They did not compel.
We have to take it on faith that the musicians did what they could with the Lindberg. In “Graffiti,” the Finnish composer, three days Salonen’s senior and currently composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, had the bright idea of setting ancient Roman graffiti texts, found on the walls of Pompeii, to music, using chorus (the Los Angeles Master Chorale) and orchestra.
It’s certainly good material, boastful, bawdy (the f bomb is dropped), funny and touching, though lacking in plot. All of it might have been written yesterday (though not in Latin, of course).
Salonen introduced the piece by saying “it’s like ‘Carmina Burana’ without the embarrassment.” Funny line, but in the event, we would have welcomed the embarrassment. Lindberg doesn’t seem to engage his material head-on, but, rather, decoratively, with modal and neo-tonal harmonies, skittering textures and potent explosions that have little or nothing to do with the meaning of the bon mot at hand.
A magistrate brags of his accomplishments, but the music is neither boastful nor pompous. A sexual exploit is recounted pithily but the music evokes no pith or humor. The blunt graffito “I’m really snotty” incurs no such response from the composer. (Is there such a thing as snotty music? We submit for your consideration “Till Eulenspiegel.”) In fact, many of the graffiti return at various times set to completely different music.
And though the composer says he grouped the texts based on subject matter, the end result is random quotation. Given this expressive disconnect between music and text, “Graffiti” became a tiresome 35 minutes.
What kind of opera makes good concert music? I don’t think that question has been conclusively answered. “Bluebeard” would seem, at first, to be a good candidate. It’s tautly structured in a single act and the orchestral part is spectacular and atmospheric, a tone poem following the “Let’s Make a Deal” storyline of the bride Judith opening the seven sinister doors in Bluebeard’s castle in succession.
But Judith and Bluebeard sing no arias. They engage in a running dialogue. With Anne Sofie von Otter and Willard White standing in front of music stands on each side of the podium there was little interaction. Von Otter proved less than perfect casting, her slender mezzo disappearing in the lower reaches of the part and somewhat less-than-blooming in the arching climaxes. White managed a gruff nobility as Bluebeard, stone-faced, but was also occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra.
There were spectacular moments in Salonen and the orchestra’s accompaniment, reminders of the smooth power and incisive precision of yore. Yet a lot of it sounded only partially digested, lacking in forward momentum, sculpted phrasing and anxious undertow.
So it went. We still say it was good to have Salonen back. Maybe next time.