Lost lives, living music and La Bohème

Lots of losses these days. The great singer who had the whole world in her hands, Jessye Norman; the most talked-about former writer of the LA Times, music critic Martin Bernheimer; the scandalized and now-resigned operatic powerhouse Plácido Domingo. (More further down.)

All this while we're in the still-heating-up stage of an impeachment chaos. But...the show goes on.

With the LA Philharmonic, for one. Our resident orchestra, led by its glamorous podium meister Gustavo Dudamel -- who grows ever more secure in his mountain-top status, so much so, that his manner is now often understated -- opened the Disney Hall season in full-Americana mode.

So you can ask, "Is there such a recognizable thing as American music?" We know the concert-hall trademarks of German/Austrian music, French music, etc. But with this big-spectrum outlay -- Gershwin, Barber, Previn, Copland -- it all came together. And the answer is yes.

It's called unadorned innocence, for one thing. It captures the wistful, the solitary, the open-hearted essence of James Agee's words from "Death in the Family" in Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," an introspective setting of one young boy's poetic splendor in the grass and the warmth of simple familiarities.

Soprano Julia Bullock let those words/notes hang in the air as though nature put them there -- her vocal poise and unmannered presence so affecting -- with Dudamel and the band framing her exquisitely.

Copland's suite from "Appalachian Spring," among the most beloved works that has settled into our collective unconscious, here touched us again to the quick (but please, maestro, don't so prolong your upheld hand at the end).

Even Gershwin's Concerto in F, his flashy, showbizzy brand of Americana, had the orchestra and, of course, pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet, that redoubtable digital wizard, sounding their full, outburst of glories, along with the dyed-in-the-blues trumpetry of Thomas Hooten. In fact, every solo we heard had the imprint of a virtuoso. Think of it. A hundred virtuosos. No wonder the audience applause is uproarious.

Another ensemble ringing in the season, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, welcomed the new music director Jaime Martín to its podium. And at Royce Hall he gave us a look/listen to his all-around persona, a conductor whose vigorous, clear, expressive commands to his players actually diagram the music's form. Wonderfully. As in the premiere of Andrew Norman's "Begin," yet another tightly wound essay of elastic connections winding its clever way to riotous combustion.

jaime-martin.jpgJaime Martin. Photo by Michelle Shiers.

Holding that same attention, Martín regaled the Royce crowd with his story of LACO founder Sir Neville Marriner -- their friendship, the British conductor's mentorship and kindness, which showed the same gemütlichkeit in this new director. He went on to say how Marrriner wanted to die on the podium, but that, at 92, he "less dramatically and thankfully" stopped breathing in his sleep.

There was no sleeping at the Wallis, though, when Body Traffic took the stage for a program filled with original and compelling works. Credit Fernando Magadan, in his choice of a Schubert piano trio whose character so perfectly framed the satiric "(d)elusive minds" and Micaela Taylor whose "Snap" qualified as a riveting James Brown movement definition. More on this outstanding company next time.

The last is the best, though. We're talking about that final scene in LA Opera's new "La Bohème."

It's Mimi in her all-knowing death throes. Bare-arms, bare shoulders, she's carried to the floor's blanket-strewn pallet. Roldolfo folds himself along her side. Soon after, she rises, the two reminisce in a spark of passion, in a sad passion. They move about with an air of spontaneous and low-keyed intimacy. The lighting casts her skin in glowing ivory tones. There is profound pathos in her voice, through tones that are slivers of nuanced purity delivered seamlessly. The whole thing, transfixing.

No, this is not any "Bohème" you've ever seen. Those hundreds of other directors station Mimi in a bed throughout the scene, the dying flower girl succumbing to tuberculosis, her lover sobbing when he discovers she's no longer breathing. Not here. And luckily Marina Costa-Jackson turns out to be just that gifted singing actor who compels attention.

la-boheme-dp.jpgLa Boheme. Photo by Cory Weaver.

This Mimi puts her own stamp on the character. After the prescriptively coy first act she is uniquely wily and willful, while the staging lets her go "beyond the kleenex." And oh, yes, she dies sitting in a chair, head slumped, a sculptural portrait lit from above, all the way to the orchestra's final notes, then blackout.

As for the rest of Barrie Kosky's production -- he's the Komische Oper's wonder boy who gave us his iconic "Magic Flute," and now this, the one Puccini lovers were waiting for -- it doesn't really fit so well on the Music Center Pavilion's open stage. The starving artists' garret is a small square platform that made me uncomfortable with its jarring disproportion to the full proscenium. But the director let all hell break loose at Café Momus, served on a revolving wheel; the Bohemian boys did their hilariously astute impersonations of Benoit without him appearing at all while conductor James Conlon and orchestra served up Puccini with equal parts panache and pathos.

Onto our losses: Bernheimer, who lacerated performers he privately called "victims" with the same humor he turned on himself, or, when they merited it, lavished them with detailed and profound praise, was feared by all. Only the Pavarottis and such were "critic-proof" and did not so much as raise an eyebrow at his pokes, his witty, inimitable, balloon-puncturing. A classic review of LA Philharmonic's then-concertmaster Sidney Harth, getting his annual spotlight as stand-up soloist began:

"Every dog has his day..." spoiling Bernheimer's own, subsequent, glowing words for the violinist's mastery in the same column.

A mentor to me and long a friend, he was that singular standard-bearer -- big enough to take back his often hilarious bark and admit to a newer, fairer view of contemporary music, for example, on reflection. (You think Beethoven's genius was immediately recognized by audiences and critics?)

At any rate, he belongs in this city's history books. Not just as a music critic, but as a journo who made his mark as a stylist -- no, call him a brand. His writing was an indelible brand. No one else could or did produce this deathless branded prose. It seemed to go under-appreciated at the LA Times, where, after being harassed by management he departed 23 years ago.

In their last meeting, Bernheimer -- who escaped as a Jewish child-fugitive from Nazi Germany -- reportedly said to his editor John Lindsay, "So this, then, is your Final Solution."

Early in his three-decade tenure, he was a Times hero -- who never buckled under the powers that be. When Buffy Chandler tried to get him fired from the paper for criticizing her pet orchestra's maestro, Zubin Mehta, he got this promise from his boss, publisher Otis Chandler: "Bernheimer protects Beethoven and I protect Bernheimer." Exactly.

The critic was genuine. And fearless. No kissing up to corporates, newspaper side or presenters side. But what is forgotten is that he did write admiringly of Mehta, the exotic, supremely photogenic Indian. It was the sexy young conductor's ostentatious posturing that Bernheimer faulted.

Wary, indeed, did any stage performer/producer have to be, of disingenuousness. If he detected manipulation, you were in for it. It follows that his younger sister Kathryn Bernheimer, a writer in Colorado, called him "pathologically unsentimental."

Writing obits of the many artists he reviewed, Bernheimer often signed off with: sic transit gloria. So, too, do we acknowledge that the world is now a lesser place, Martin.

Plácido Domingo, also, must be a memory -- now that his career was cut short in the U.S. (especially here in L.A.). Caught in the Me Too frenzy by an ambitious AP reporter who allegedly went fishing for a story, the idolized tenor-turned-baritone/conductor now leaves these shores for Europe where music-lovers hail him without reservation.

But Jessye Norman, who defined diva-dom, will never leave us -- because her recordings (if not her glittering, magisterial presence) can be tapped into online. Try "Im Abendrot" from Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs to know what eternal sunset could feel like.

More by Donna Perlmutter:
Previous blog post: Lucas Museum
Next blog post: Randy's Donuts
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed