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Review: Is it finally time to take Saint-Saëns seriously?



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“For hours after Jean-Philippe Collard had left Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto a pile of shards on the Hollywood Bowl stage,” Alan Wealthy wrote in L.A. Weekly in the summertime of 1999, “I racked my mind making an attempt — with out success, because it occurred — to think about a worse piece of music by a composer of renown.” In my case, I dismissed Saint-Saëns’ concerto, generally known as “L’Égyptien,” as “ridiculous” in The Instances.

What had been we considering? Not otherwise from one another or from obtained knowledge about one in all France’s as soon as most celebrated and well-liked composers. After he died at age 86 in December 1921, Saint-Saëns’ fame went into regular decline. Debussy, Ravel and Satie led the early twentieth century French musical revolution, whereas “The Splendor of Saint-Saëns,” the title of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Bowl program Thursday evening, represented perceived glib, outdated Romanticism.

Sure, Saint-Saëns wrote “The Carnival of the Animals,” correctly irresistible to youngsters, nice pianists (Martha Argerich, for one) and swanning ballerinas. However of Saint-Saëns’ in any other case huge output, solely one in all his 13 operas (“Samson and Delilah”), two of his 10 concertos (the primary for cello and the second for piano) and his Symphony No. 3 (the final of his 5 symphonies, two of that are so little esteemed that they continue to be unnumbered) even have remained comparatively well-known. You may need surmised Thursday evening, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic carried out the “Bacchanale” from “Samson and Delilah,” the First Cello Concerto and the Third Symphony (“Organ”), that even these hits are not an incredible draw. Attendance was noticeably smaller than at different L.A. Phil packages this summer season.

But Saint-Saëns’ fame has, certainly, tremendously modified over the previous quarter-century. He might have loathed French Impressionism and thought of Stravinsky’s “The Ceremony of Spring” the work of a modernist madman, however Saint-Saëns is more and more seen as a form of radical proto-Postmodernist. For all of his reactionary animosity towards “trendy” music, he was a exceptional eclectic, who traveled broadly, notably to the Center East, North Africa and Asia, absorbing musical traditions earlier than they grew to become Westernized. He frolicked in Russia with Tchaikovsky. For all his lavish Romanticism, he was additionally a refined classicist, studied in classical literature and archeology. He had a scientific thoughts and was an achieved mathematician and beginner astronomer.

As a child-prodigy pianist, organist and composer, Saint-Saëns was typically known as a French Mozart. He caught the eye of Berlioz and Liszt, each of whom had been appreciable influences. He was a wondrous and unapologetic melodist. He was open to a variety of affect, notably falling beneath the spell of what he heard (and studied!) on his travels. He was a glamorous and authentic orchestrator who sprinkled glitter freely, though that got here to sound like kitsch to Alan and me in his piano writing for “L’Égyptien.”

A mixture of scholarship, newly illuminating performances, the rediscovery of uncared for works and an unstuffy rage for eclecticism in our present musical tradition has now made Saint-Saëns not simply palatable however prescient. An excellent new recording of the piano concertos by the younger pianist Alexandre Kantorow, with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, performed by his father, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, makes even “L’Égyptien” sound like a exceptional panache from a extra harmless time.

Latest recordings of “Ascanio” and “Le Timbre d’Argent” reveal a French opera composer of far higher scope than beforehand imagined. Two new units of the 5 symphonies present additional revelations. Kantorow and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège provide depth and aptitude. The opposite, with Cristian Macelaru main Orchestre Nationwide de France, is plainer. However the Romanian conductor occurs to be music director of the Cabrillo Competition, which was based by Lou Harrison, California’s nice melodist and eclectic. Like Saint-Saëns, Harrison, as he put it, unfold his toys over a big acreage.

Saint-Saëns, furthermore, did come to the Bay Space in 1915 for the San Francisco Symphony’s efficiency of his Third Symphony. Whereas there, he performed the premiere of his “Hail California,” written for grand organ and John Philip Sousa’s band, as a part of the Panama-Pacific Worldwide Exposition, which commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal.

The long-forgotten “Hail California,” which incorporates references to the “Marseillaise” and the “Star Spangled Banner” (there aren’t any recordings however it may possibly discovered on YouTube) would have made a vigorous addition to Thursday’s in any other case typical Saint-Saëns night. However this system was, nonetheless, nicely designed to carry pleasure.

This was Paolo Bortolameolli’s final live performance because the L.A. Phil’s affiliate conductor. The Chilean conductor, who’s the music director of the Mexican youth orchestra Sinfónica Azteca, is himself an imaginative eclectic who final month led a different L.A. Phil Green Umbrella program on the Ford Theater, in addition to a live performance with Devonté Hynes.

Nonetheless, Bortolameolli, extra suave than showy, introduced a welcome sophistication to Saint-Saëns. The cello concerto begins with a dramatic A-minor chord within the orchestra, which seemingly startled an alarmed soloist. A second theme is a beautiful melody, sometimes heard as a sigh of aid. Out of nowhere the concerto roams right into a world of fancifully skipping minuets earlier than returning extra forcefully to the start drama.

Cellists have a tendency to hunt, with highly effective expressivity, a theatrical narrative. There was, although, nothing startling about Bortolameolli and the younger Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández. This was Saint-Saëns the cautious classicist, Saint-Saëns the stargazer; Saint-Saëns the traveler listening to others’ music, not expressing his personal ego.

Ferrändez’s tone grew gracefully stronger all through the efficiency, treating the concerto as a piece by which he might comply with his personal path of discovery. His tone is beautiful however he by no means exploits it for its personal sake. He produces pleasure by way of rhythm however retains that understated as nicely, in order that the impression is that each one the magic is within the music.

These had been additionally strengths in Bortolameolli’s efficiency of the “Organ” Symphony. Saint-Saëns’ use of the organ is an oddity, however so is the piano, with two pianists who sit subsequent to the organ. The piano serves right here as an instrument of glitter, and Saint-Saëns wants 20 fingers for it to provide the right quantity.

It’s a fantastic symphony — somber at first, skittish a lot of the time, dazzling more often than not. The organ is used within the incense-laden gradual motion for its otherworldly low drones and its sensual dialogue with the strings.

The final motion is a spectacle. When you’re making an attempt out new loudspeakers for a house stereo, that is the motion to play to check bass and treble and ensure your amplifier has sufficient energy. It most likely doesn’t. The symphony is all however unrecordable, and it challenged even the Bowl’s monstrous sound system.

Bortolameolli had no methods up his sleeve. He let the symphony unfold, delightedly when that was the temper, sumptuously when that was known as for and, on the finish, magisterially relatively than brashly. The L.A. Phil takes to this type of factor with ease. The Bowl much less so, Saint-Saëns’ ethereally poignant transitions seeming to be catnip to overhead plane. However no helicopter is a match for the Finale.

Whereas Bortolameolli now strikes on — a serious music director put up someplace appears all however sure — he’ll return to Walt Disney Live performance Corridor subsequent season for a Inexperienced Umbrella live performance.