Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remember When

Bernard Labadie Photo: Luc Delisle
The last week leading up to the holidays brought the most familiar of music to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, nearly all of it from the 18th Century. The final regular subscription shows for the year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic were all Mozart affairs with Symphony No. 41, a snippet from Idomeneo, and Piano Concert No. 27. The conductor was Bernard Labadie, a Baroque specialist, whose previous appearances here with or without his own ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, have been well liked by many including me. The show on Saturday, though, overall was not up to the quality of those prior appearances or at least my memories of them. Of course, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is not a period practice ensemble and to compare them to the smaller Baroque specialist outfit is unfair. However, they've produced excellent performances of 18th Century fare in the past under him, and just this season, the produced some amazing playing of Handel under the direction of Emmauelle Haïm, so a lively earlier sound is certainly possible under the right circumstances. The sound on Saturday was very big and very polished for Mozart, and while pleasant enough, not particularly exciting either. None of this was improved upon by the choice of soloist, Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo. He, too, was both professional and technically accurate in his playing. But it was also uninteresting without clear lines and could be rather unemotional. I found the tempi in the Symphony to drag a little as well.

Mozart is not the easiest of music to get right, and by that I mean played in a manner that incites excitement in the listener. Handel’s Messiah is probably even more so. That’s not necessarily due to technical issues as much as the piece’s omnipresence at this time of year. Any performance invites comparisons to others and my current gold standard is the superb version filmed in Vienna with Ensemble Matheus under Spinosi including a full staging directed by Claus Guth. My dream version at this point would be staged as well, this time by Achim Freyer who worked wonders in Los Angeles with with Bach's Mass in C Minor all those years ago. In Los Angeles this year, you have several Messiah options. The Los Angeles Philharmonic hosted Nicholas McGegan and the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for two performances of Handel’s big oratorio last week. They availed themselves nicely with the assistance of their 24-member chorus and four soloists. The playing from the orchestra was up to its usual standards and McGegan led a well-paced performance with the expected cuts and plenty of character. The soloists were all fine, including countertenor Daniel Taylor, soprano Dominique Labelle, baritone Nathaniel Watson, and tenor Thomas Cooley. Cooley and Labelle stood out with ample power in the hall. Was it the best Messiah ever? No. But it was a good one by any standard and a welcome addition for a time of year that is often overrun with overly familiar music not always given the fairest shake.

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