Used to be that the East Coast Elite called Los Angeles "a cultural wasteland," adding that pejorative to its put-down of populist TV, nation-wide.
It wasn't enough that this city hosted such renowned refugees as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill et al who created work of extraordinary value here. Or even that its own orchestra, helmed then by the 26-year-old swashbuckler Zubin Mehta, came calling at celebrity's door. The LA Phil still had trouble cracking "the big five" classical enterprises (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland).
Now, there's no contest. LA's own Michael Tilson Thomas just became a Kennedy Center honoree in the most vibrant profile of the entire televised celebration, and is very visible these days at Disney Hall, since stepping down from his San Francisco Symphony.
Although his reserved, un-hungry persona eschews the rock star spotlight, his stellar gifts (podium meister, pianist, Bernstein-like explainer of music from James Brown to Beethoven, winner of a National Medal of Arts, Peabody award, countless Grammys and founder of Miami's New World Symphony) make him a unique treasure. (More below on MTT's recent Disney Hall concert ).
But Mehta, back in the 60's, got the ball rolling big-time. The Bombay-born maestro was musically high-born. A figure who could not be ignored -- neither in New York, nor Vienna, nor Tel Aviv, nor elsewhere.
His LA Phil tenure (1962-1978) and then his NY Philharmonic post (for 13 years, the longest in that podium's history) came with a mastery of the late-Romantic extravaganzas and a break-out adventurism. But his tripping along with the Three Tenors shows, staged at massive arenas around the world, was often scorned as a crass sellout. (Pavarotti, especially targeted, won public adoration as that golden-voiced presence, that giant cherub waving a big white hanky and sucking in applause as though it were oxygen.)
Funny thing, though. Critical purists pooh-pooh such performances, while artists' managements pray for their popularized artists to bring in a bonus bankroll. Mehta's Time magazine cover signaled his primacy.
And now local audiences honor him with prolonged ovations, even as his stride to the podium is no longer a powerful force, but a slow, labored stroll, the effects of recent illness and 83 years of vigorous conducting.
After all, he never gave up his L.A. residence in the Bel-Air hills. He was an honorary native. He returned over the years to lead Philharmonic programs and to his family -- mainly his parents, who moved here from Bombay, his conductor father Mehli Mehta continuing his career as the American Youth Symphony's beloved music director.
So, who ignites the public? The general public, not just the classical music ticket-buyers. The ones who, even on the downside of their careers, remain top stars. We've got one in his prime now, 38-year-old Gustavo Dudamel.
He can name his pick anywhere in the world. And that ups the ante here at the LA Phil. It marks the city as a major center, with "the strongest, most innovative orchestra in the country," says the NY Times.
Which leads us to the Dudamel question: Who else from the concert hall realm has the wattage to be drafted for a Super Bowl half-time show? And for an upcoming animated film. And for conducting "West Side Story" in a new Spielberg picture? We know. Stars seek out their coterie of stars. It's called product-enhancement. Celebrity loves celebrity. And it pays off.
So no one, arguably, would dispute L.A. as the world capital of entertainment. Even our last music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, turned down a bid to take over the NY Philharmonic.
Okay. So we have Bombay (Mehta), Helsinki (Salonen) and -- hurray -- an honest-to-god Angeleno (Michael Tilson Thomas). Nothing against internationalism, but just to say, not everything is imported.
Tilson Thomas, prior to his Kennedy Center TV airing, came to us with "Appalachian Spring," a reading that grasped Copland's delicacy as a spirit, his rhythmic aliveness and, altogether, the open-hearted sensibility of such American music.
The orchestra, its playing rock-solid, even took some unexpected leaps under MTT's ministrations with its soloist, Daniil Trifonov, in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.
Now you can forget the hundreds of times this warhorse has been trotted out by super-virtuosos -- ever since that tall Texan Van Cliburn brought home his 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition prize from Moscow for his elegant account (which did so much for détente between the Soviet Union and U.S.).
But here was that ever-mindful Russian (who lives in New York) and decided to take it back. I have not heard anyone play the Tchaikovsky 1st with such depth, clarity and power as Trifonov. His unearthing of its structure let us hear something brand new, his simplified, un-pedaled statements revealing an original impetus. No matter where he determined to go MTT and the orchestra followed as a single heartbeat. I even saw a rarity at the 1st movement cadenza: the players sat in rapt attention, hardly breathing.
Something rare, also, had to be the Philharmonic's Viennese New Years show. This time Mehta, a baked-in manager of the mit schlag tradition, led the band in those delectable Johann Strauss numbers. And, come on, who could resist the rollicking "Tritsch-Tratsch" polka, ballet bon-bons or soprano Chen Reiss's Csardas from "Die Fledermaus?"
But do not despair. Mehta, still conducting from his stool, also signed up for his long-time favorite, a Germanic bill of Wagner and, this time, the noted 2nd Viennese School composers.
One thing to count on: that Wagnerian music with this orchestra, in this hall, is like nothing else -- especially, of course, with a maestro like Mehta. The clear lines layering, the beef, the sheen, the balances, the expressivity. All of it thrilling. So what, you can't get to Bayreuth? Hearing these excerpts from "Götterdämmerung" is enough.
The composer's loving heart for Siegfried and Brünnhilde's heroic radiance were high moments. Consider: soprano Christine Goerke's apparatus-like power in the Immolation Scene and her timing with Mehta, as she pushed the stage door to exit exactly on cue with the drum-roll crash signifying that glorious, sacrificial burn.
Deeply, thoroughly symphonic as well, although on a small scale, was Schoenberg's last tonal work, the Chamber Symphony No. 1, written just 30 years later and right before his revolutionary leap to 12-tone music). Mehta and the Phil gave us its restless energy spilling over, its searching quality, its break-outs of longing, all with passionate engagement.
A different kind of breakout hit the Ahmanson Theatre stage when, once more, Matthew Bourne treated us to his satiric social parable, "Swan Lake." You know, the one with menacing male swans, flapping around bare-chested, in their shag-rug pantaloons.
Well, Bourne, a self-confessed "serial meddler" was up to his old masterly tricks again, tinkering with the narrative and inventing new relationships.
The one that grabbed me was the third act ballroom scene with Odile (here called the Stranger). No longer a shiny sex object magnetizing the prince, Will Bozier was the re-incarnation of Marlon Brando confronting Vivien Leigh in "Streetcar Named Desire." The rape scene. And more.
The women here did not ooh and aah, they cringed. He menaced them. Even the queen mother, who craved him, allowed his assault and degradation, all of it especially targeting the prince; he was punished by the sight of his amour having sex with his mother. The slaps, the grunts, the utter domination in Bozier's body language -- his muscular bearing, his authenticity -- left us gaping.
Let's hear it for dancing actors and Sir Matthew, who continues to inspire them.
Photo of Michael Tilson Thomas by Joshua Robison