I don't know what I shall do; I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned; I feel as if I were sitting in the centre of a mighty "reflector."
- Henry James, The Point of View
After the Bostonians vacated the hall a Finn named Esa-Pekka Salonen arrived to take charge of things for the weekend. He brought three pieces with him: a souvenir from his homeland, another from Germany (he's recently admitted to being fascinated with these heavy German items), and a substantial work of his own hand, for which he was recently awarded a handsome prize. Isabella and I had looked forward to his visit for some time, in no small part due to his bringing two illustrious visitors with him, both women- a musician and a singer.
As we neared the entrance to the hall I my eye caught someone I once knew standing alone under the harsh lights near the curb, furtively looking down. I had known such a thing would occur at some point, but the foreknowledge didn't prevent an unpleasant stain from spreading through my consciousness. It was the unexpectedness of it happening at this particular moment that took me by surprise, though in hindsight I could have easily deduced the odds if I had considered her past behavior. But who has the time for such things? I turned my gaze, unaware of whether if she saw us or not, and entered the lobby, whispering in Isabella's ear that a jackal was present in the garden.
As we waited for the Finn to take the podium I saw the jackal enter the terrace, followed by her elderly warden, and watched as they took seats in the back row, almost directly across the hall from us. It wasn't until the next morning an amusing but sad irony about the entire scene occurred to me as Isabella and I were having breakfast. As I've said before, it's a small town.
Salonen strode to the podium looking like he still lived in Southern California. He reminded Isabella of a certain pop singer my sister was involved with until my mother put her foot down, thus ending the absurd sight of a white Rolls Royce frequently parked at the curb of our house after school when we were teenagers. The quiet strains which open Sibelius' Pohjola's Daughter (Daughter of the North) rose from the bass and cellos. The piece, one of many by the composer inspired by Karelian poetry, is based on the story of a wise man who falls under the spell of a dangerous yet alluring female spectre while searching for a wife in the northern hinterlands.
The spectre requests the hero perform several impossible tasks in order to win her hand and the music grows louder and darker as his failures and frustration mounts, chugging along to an impressive climax which the brass took brilliantly. At the end, the wise man gives up and moves on and the music dissolved into a silence signalling an unequivocal, sad defeat. The orchestra has played the piece only once before, in 1948. It would be nice to hear more of these Sibelius tone poems, of which there are a dozen.
During the break I noticed the jackal and her warden rise and exit through the rear door of the terrace. I thought they were leaving but they soon reappeared on the side of the terrace and talked an usher into letting them sit in seats that didn't belong to them. I watched the jackal put on her glasses. Isabella, who has a keen eye for such things, had some interesting observations about their body language.
Leila Josefowicz walked onstage in five-inch heels wearing a gown accommodating her obvious pregnancy. The combination worked for me on a number of levels. There's something incredibly bold about Josefowicz which manifests itself in so many ways. She performs fearlessly. A serious advocate for contemporary composers, she's had some brilliant pieces written specifically for her, including Salonen's Violin Concerto which came next.
Salonen recently won the presigious Grawemeyer Award for music composition for the piece and I was present at its world premiere at Disney Hall- it was one of the bests concerts I've ever attended and I was looking forward to hearing it again. Salonen breaks all kinds of "rules" with the piece but hews to a traditional model. It begins with the soloist who then continues to play almost all the way through it. There's also a complete drum kit onstage, which drives the rythmic heart of the piece found in its third movement, called "Pulse II"- an evocation of the vitality of life in Los Angeles. The fourth movement is about as long as the first three combined.
Josefowicz tore through the half-hour long work with obvious relish, aggressively taking on the dizzying fast parts, sections full of double stops and loaded with notes that tumble on top of one another like an avalanche. Her performance, as I expected it would be, was thrilling, even if the orchestra didn't seem to fully gel with Salonen in the intricasies of the final movement.
The lack of cohesion between conductor and orchestra became more apparent after the intermission which featured music from Wagner's Gotterdammerung. Soprano Christine Brewer, whose career has taken her increasingly away from the opera house after a knee injury sidelined her for awhile, was on hand to sing Brunnhilde's immolation scene. The strings sounded wonderful throughout, with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik taking a seat onstage after Josefowicz' departure, but the brass were limpid during the dawn and journey down the Rhine. The funeral march was taken at very fast tempo, robbing it of a lot of its drama, and Brewer struggled to make herself heard over the orchestra. Though there were moments of beauty scattered throughout (how could there not be with some of the most gorgeous music ever written?), the overall execution was surprisingly a train wreck, all the more inexplicable because I've witnessed all of these artists give terrific, even stunning, performances of Wagner's music in the past.
We left without seeing the jackal again and stepped out into crisp, cold evening, admiring the almost-full moon shining brightly over the gilded dome of City Hall. Neither of us had to work the next morning, so we stayed up late, listening to sections from different versions of Gotterdammerung- Solti and Boulez's, discussing the evil of Hagen, the prescience of the Norns, and slowly everything receded into the twilight.