Now we call him Sir Simon. But back in the day — before his curly top turned white — Simon Rattle was an enormously gifted principal guest conductor of the LA Philharmonic.
He'd joined forces with Carlo Maria Giulini. Remember him? The old-world maestro who led our resident band on excursions of poetic transport? Who looked every part the willowy patrician and got the orchestra to play like heaven's tribunes?
Of course you do.
Okay, that was an earlier golden era — well before this one headed by the spirited, infectious Gustavo Dudamel, who belies its administration's corporate style.
We cannot forget any of those from the '80s -- not Rattle, the young Liverpudlian, nor native Angeleno Michael Tilson Thomas, co-principal guest conductor. Together they stood next to Giulini, breathing in his aura, forever to be held to the Italian podium meister's standards.
So here's what happened in the wake of the Sainted One's 1984 departure from this country.
LA Phil director Ernest Fleischmann passed over MTT for the chief post, allegedly because the candidate had a same-sex partner and in those pre-historic times of full-bloom homophobia, such preferences were a no-no.
And Sir Simon — now ennobled by the Brits — reportedly turned down the offer, preferring to be back across the pond with his orchestra in Birmingham. Finally, he was tapped by the Berlin Philharmonic to head that Rolls Royce of orchestras, where perfection does not go wanting.
In 2003 he and the Berliners joined Disney Hall's glitzy inaugural revelries — with an unforgettable sonic blast that still reverberates. And now, at last, the beloved Brit returned to his old chums here who still remain in the LA Phil and the newer hires.
In a word their concert together was fabulous. Rattle gave us modernist Ligeti's long-lined floating essences, "Atmosphères," devolving into Wagner's similarly long-lined "Lohengrin" (first act prelude) - both works cosmic to the core. An inspired stroke to present them as a unit.
The solo spot fell to his wife, the dazzling Czech mezzo and European star Magdalena Kozená, for Mahler's "Rückert Lieder." And while we could hear her voice in the drifts of velvet gorgeousness that wended their way to our side seats at Disney (hardly an ideal location), her sense of the poems — wistful, innocent, profound — was always evident, as was Rattle's and the players' collaboration in same.
Next came Bruckner's massive 9th Symphony, which he conducted from memory. There were extraordinary stop-on-a-dime moments that dropped from big striding basses to sudden, suspended quiet and delicate playing. What treachery lurks in this work, as performance goes, and what a physical workout for any ensemble.
What's more, we could see/hear in his ministrations where much of Dudamel's influences came from. For instance, Rattle sometimes stands stock still, in a groove with the players as they go at it, conducting with his eyebrows! And there's the trick of passing his baton from hand to hand as needed, as though a it's a mere extension. He even joins his musicians at curtain calls, shoulder to shoulder with them on the stage floor, not on the podium.
Another hero in our midst, Mona Golabek, has taken her talents to the Geffen stage in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" (through June 24) as actor/musician (have you heard her reading Chopin's letters to George Sand on air, courtesy of K-Mozart, 1260 AM?) So powerfully moving is Golabek's chronicle of her mother, Holocaust orphan Lisa Jura — an aspiring pianist who boarded Vienna's Kindertransport to London at age 12, never to see her parents again — that the one-woman bio-show is an epic not to miss. Hershey Felder, the creator of this genre, helped bring the memoir to script form.
So much for performing artists. And now a little something about a woman who presents them, Dale Franzen. The former opera singer surely qualifies as LA's leading impresaria — she even undertook the project of building a concert hall, Santa Monica's Broad Stage, bankrolled by, of course...
Franzen's last event of the season there was the recital of big-time tenor Piotr Beczala. The Polish singer, seen recently in a Met simulcast of "Manon," with Anna Netrebko, drew a sellout crowd of voice fanciers to the Broad. But although he boasts a stellar, ringing voice, Beczala hasn't adjusted down to the scale of an intimate 500-seat theater that is already resonant to the nth degree. Nor did he bother much with the recital mode: nuanced singing, subtlety of characterization, word pointing. And because he used the same big projection technique needed for a 4,000-seat house, some of us — and I'm not exaggerating — required ear-stuffers.
Rattle photo courtesy of LA Phil; Mona Golabek by Michael Lamont.