London Philharmonia

Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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The Philharmonia has been called one of the best orchestras in the world and its principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen may be one of our top living ones, so pairing a master work by the Russian Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) with a commissioned world premiere, “Dreamers”, by the up and coming Peruvian Jimmy Lopez ( 1978 — ) had lots going for it. But did Philharmonia and Salonen deliver the goods? Well yes and no, but yes and no is always the hardest question to answer. Why? Because when feelings are mixed you’re in for interesting trouble.

And let’s face it commissioned works are always a mixed bag. Are you doing it because someone’s footing the bill or because that’s what you really think and feel? Lopez made a big splash with his first and only opera “Bel Canto” (2015) which soprano Renee Fleming mid wived onto Chicago’s Lyric Opera stage to deserved acclaim — I caught its PBS Great Performances broadcast — and so expectations were high ( though I was wary ) for his Cal Performances debut under its Berkeley RADICAL citizenship series umbrella. Berkeley was the center of the Free Speech movement in the 60’s and the progressive left’s latest fashionable cause is the plight of the migrants / immigrants, or dreamers, who are responding to DACA ( Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ) which President Obama signed as an Executive Order but it has never been signed into law. Lopez and his librettist Nilo Cruz, who wrote the book for “Bel Canto”, interviewed UC Berkeley students with undocumented status when building their piece. Maybe the Hewlett Foundation, which was one of their funders, stipulated that they had to talk to the Dreamers, but what they came up here merely speaks to the converted who believe that ICE ( Immigration and Customs Enforcement ) are Nazis, that the undocumented are brutally persecuted, and that everything’s falling apart in President Trump’s America because everyone’s a #METOO victim whatever the issue. And so what could Puerto Rican operatic soprano Ana Maria Martinez, Dr. Wei Cheng’s UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, Robert Geary’s Volti and the Philharmonia do but wring their collective hands ?

One writer has described Lopez’s musical language in “Dreamers” as “neo romantic” though the big problem here was that much of the limp/sometimes amateurish text comes off like a middle school student trying to please his teacher with his “poetic” narrative, and the music, though sometimes a bit better than the words — as when assymetrical rhythms were pitted against chorus or soloists — tends to merely foreground them. Collaborative work needs lots of give and take — I learned this in my first film “Alex North VIVA ZAPATA! (2010), and in my A RUSSIAN NOVEL [ Anna and Vronsky ] (2016) which had four actors, a pianist, and a sound/lighting man live.  Even more damaging here is that both music and words often lacked a strong point of view, or we were preached to? Lopez writes very effectively for orchestra, but less so for voice, which even the greatest composers can take years to master. Lopez supplied lots of melismas to show that Martinez’s “character” really cares about the endangered “children ” and there’s even a– you guessed it — militaristic snare drum roll — for them. But Martinez gave a sincere and heartfelt performance though her vibrato smeared some of the words. The rehearsal time was probably limited due to the two other programs Philharmonia did — Schoenberg’ s “Verklarte Nacht” and the Bruckner Seventh were given the night before — which may be why the music sounded possibly louder than it needed to be due to Salonen’s over emphatic gestures? the tuttis sounded cataclysmic. But then everyone seems to want to walk away from the immigration fight, even the Brit band here.

Artists have been tackling “difficult” subject matter for centuries and a truly confrontational approach may have served this material better because soloists and chorus here were fairly screaming for the stage and — good lighting. “Dreamers” isn’t an oratorio per se because the texts are neither liturgical or mythic, and it certainly pales next to Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex” (1926-27), which is both ritualistic and terrifying, or the same composer’s “Les Noces” (1917), which though not an oratorio has a primitive force cum lyricism lacking mostly here. But the most serious problem is that we as a culture may be stuck with Alfonso Cuaron’s wildly overrated slo mo film “masterpiece” “Roma” (2018) which takes the self-important high art road which is in its way even more ruinous to artistic freedom than Stalin’s crackdown on composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev because they wouldn’t produce Socialist Realism, though “Dreamers ” may be our homegrown version because everyone’s happily toeing the party line re: how awful Trump is in our disunited States of America. Lopez is a gifted composer and a lovely person. I hope he follows his own lights in his subsequent work. Pleasing others is fine, but pleasing ourselves first is the way to go, or as the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara put it ” poetry is a private bell for inexplicable needs.”
Stravinsky liked to please but always went his own way and Salonen and the Philharmonia got Stravinsky’s color, pacing and rhythmic subtleties / drive down to a tee. Salonen has performed and recorded lots of Stravinsky with the woefully underrated LA Phil when he was there, and with other orchestras, and Salonen’s  visit to Zellerbach in fall 2016 with all-Stravinsky programs which I wrote up for www.culturevulture.net was an unalloyed pleasure. Stravinsky’s work with Sergey Dyagilev’s Paris-based Ballet Russes is the stuff of fact and legend, and their first of their three collaborations “The Firebird ” ( Zhar’- ptitsa ); their second ” Petrushka ”  made a huge impression when it was performed and continues to, but The Russian manner ” has always been unique —  high color, rhythmic punch, full-out drama, and lets not forget — depth — are its calling cards so why are conservatives and “progressives” everywhere Russia’s sworn enemies? because “Firebird ” will survive us all.
Salonen and company’s reading had much to recommend it. Utterly clear with what’s there on the page, and what’s heard in our inner ear, plus seductive — the always dissed violas contributed their warm and infinitely supple inner line –but the finale lacked the specific Russian heft that Valery Gergiev gives it. “Accurate”, but what’s behind it was somewhat missing in action. With the next Dyagilev collaboration ” Petrushka ” ( 1911 ) waiting in the wings, and ” Le Sacre” in 1913 which made this Russian master the most famous and copied musician in the world.
The Philharmonia encore — ” “” enchanted garden ” from Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite ” was beyond exquisite — “Think truth, beauty, forget everything else ” as pianist /composer Bill Evans is said to have said.
Entirely perfect . A breath. I wept. Because he was gay, not out, as Lopez is? Who knows? But perfection nonetheless.


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