Orchestras play musical chairs... and more

deborah-borda.jpgDeborah Borda. Photo: Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

For roughly a year, the classical music world waited. Who would be appointed the next maestro of the illustrious New York Philharmonic? And when word finally came I read about it as:

"Yep. It's Jaap"

That was from the New Yorker magazine. A hilarious announcement naming the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden (pronounced Yahp van ZVAY-den) to begin his tenure there in 2018.

And that's not all. Deborah Borda, CEO of the LA Phil, has just announced that she'll head back with him to swap for the same top job there -- after 17 years of building vast symphonic fortunes in the City of Angels. (Curiously, van Zweden has been canceling his guest gigs since signing with New York, but did get here to Borda's realm last week.)

So bear in mind that what happens in Berlin resonates in Boston, as it does in Los Angeles and London. When an elite orchestra puts out its international search for a music director, whispers abound, with one speculation spilling after another. The game of musical chairs is on. In fact, Gustavo Dudamel quickly renewed his contract here in time to allay rumors that he would be in the NY running.

jaap-van-zweden.jpgNaturally, van Zweden (right) aroused great interest when he came this month to guest conduct the LA Philharmonic. Yes, we wanted to see just what arsenal this small, muscular no-nonsense man packed, what won him the plum New York job.

Especially because he was not quite the starry eminence of a Boulez or Bernstein or Mahler -- past NY Phil directors. And even considering that he actually did not more than sit in the Concertgebouw's concertmaster chair for 19 years before he became only a conductor of lesser orchestras.

Mysteries prevail sometimes. But NYP musicians are said to eat their maestros for lunch -- so avid music followers are even more curious to see how the marriage works out.
Leading the LA Phil, van Zweden was every bit the workman in full command. In Beethoven's Fifth, with its four fateful knocks, he showed himself to be a galvanic force, if not so much a pensive soul who can dwell in the shadows. And in the Shostakovich Fifth we heard its powerful Russian militarism but felt less its abject hollows and spaces.

Whatever else the Dutchman inspires, as a key to his winning New York's big conductorial prize, we can only know by the smiles on our resident musicians' faces at concert's end Saturday -- their widely beaming smiles and his more than ample appreciation of them -- that orchestras are keen on this man, that they give their utmost.

Others give their utmost, too. Jamie Rigler is one. As executor of the Lloyd Rigler-Lawrence Deutsch Foundation, he has been sponsoring an exclusive opera series at the Broad Stage presenting celebrated singers and putting on lavish pre-concert spreads.

The format goes like this: A full orchestra accompanies two singers, with the three taking turns so as to showcase each individually and even lessen the burden all around. The latest: Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé.

It turns out that Damrau is currently the Met's hot draw ("Puritani" and "Roméo et Juliette"). No wonder. The German soprano just might be the most animated singing actress around today. She doesn't need supertitles, she enacts the words and the music like no one else. Humor? She's a comedian. Irony? She's an ironist. Drama? She's a tragedian. And of course there's the voice -- coloratura precise, high notes intact, a bit shrill at full volume but soft beautiful tones elsewhere. She opens in LA Opera's "Contes d'Hoffmann" March 25.

Testé, her French co-star at the Broad, made a striking contrast as a stage personality. Almost retiring, the handsome bass-baritone with the gorgeous mahogany tones sang a wrenchingly sorrowful "Elle ne m'aime pas." And finally the two joined onstage for "Bess You Is My Woman," where Damrau coaxed from her shy Porgy passionately ringing outpourings, along with a smooch.

The program in general, though, had a lot of nearly esoteric numbers not so winning with an audience -- it's hard to imagine they are touring this same show on two continents, with conductor Pavel Baleff, who relished the orchestral interludes he led between arias.

Also relishing: I got the sense that James Gaffigan, with the LA Philharmonic, luxuriated in the blazing sensuality he drew from the band's account of Ravel's 2nd Suite from "Daphnis et Chloe." Does it matter how often you hear it when performed at this level, as an enchanting gossamer mist, the epitome of French voluptuousness? Some music stays. It's there for a virtuosic orchestra to revel in, especially with a flutist like Denis Bouriakov et al. (And even for a composer like Brian Easdale, back in 1948, who picked up a fragment from it for his score, "The Red Shoes.")

Another piece, say, James Matheson's "Unchained," need remind us only once that a composer can experiment within its various instrumental sections for his own amusement but not our own.

And then there are those who straddle several idioms without excelling in every one. Take Patricia Racette, a real trouper. Few could fault the soprano's Verdi or Puccini, as in "Butterfly" -- where we've melted in the presence of her extraordinary word-painting, her musical sensitivity and legato technique. But "Salomé"? Now that's an opera (still onstage at the Music Center) with the game Racette. She brings it physical and vocal grit, but just doesn't pierce the decadent perversion of it all, no, not that Baudelairean necrophilia so inscribed by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss.

This Judean princess pranced about, up and on the cistern imprisoning the holy man who is her fatal attraction -- even to the final stark nude moment of shedding her seven veils. She telegraphed wildness but of an ordinary, tomboy sort, not the perfumed dementia we saw years ago in Maria Ewing's Salomé, trapped inside a schizoid world of isolation.

Different kinds of prancings and prisons saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater once again at the Music Center Pavilion. On this visit the choreography left behind the recent bright, tight, highly controlled mechanics of abstract movement and gave us two dark, moody pieces that showed its dancers in loose, gauzy streetwear.

matthew-rushing-dp.jpgMatthew Rushing.

Most impressive of these was Kyle Abraham's "Untitled America" which vaguely hints at the anguish of incarceration but consoles itself with ambience and poetic reflections, along with moving personal testimonies as voice-overs. "r-Evolution, Dream" is a compendium of street dance modes in revue style capped off by Matthew Rushing's singular presence -- an elegant, utterly imperious, noble figure, bubbling with good vibes. He commands your gaze with his every gesture, his every eyelash flick.

The company, still reliably producing top dancers, celebrates them generously. And it never fails to give audiences their favorite going-home gift: the heart-felt, uproarious Ailey signature "Revelations."

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