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Letter from London

The foggy joys of Europe’s most international city
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  September 5, 2008

AFTERLIFE Michael Frayn’s new play about Max Reinhardt is self-consciously symbolic.

LONDON — “Ladies and gentlemen, due to a person under a train at Chancery Lane, there is no service on the Central Line between Holborn and Liverpool Station.” This informative announcement got repeated every couple of minutes on all the London tube stops. You’d never hear anything like it at Park Street. My favorite headline of all time appeared on the front page of a London tabloid in 1963: “CHRISTINE KEELER EXPOSED AS SHAMELESS SLUT.” How could you not fall in love with this city?

It had been five years since I’d been here. But offsetting the low dollar and the high prices (hard to find a hamburger for less than $12) was the invitation to spend 10 days with a friend who was house-sitting.

Even in August, London radiates culture. Every night the BBC Proms concerts fill Royal Albert Hall, that giant Victorian Easter egg (scene of the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much) that holds some 7000 persons (with orchestra seats removed to accommodate 1000 standees). I heard the young Venezuelan prodigy Gustavo Dudamel conduct his current orchestra, Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony, and Pierre Boulez leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in late works by Leoš Janáček, his surprising current passion.

Dudamel has just been appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I’ve heard him conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and Venezuela’s amazing Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, out of which he himself emerged. He combines serious musicianship with electrifying energy. But the Swedish orchestra sounded thin and ragged. An off night? Or is Dudamel not yet a fully fledged orchestra builder? The program was eclectic: familiar showpieces (Ravel’s La valse and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique) bracketing the UK premiere of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s 2001 Clarinet Concerto (Peacock Tales) with Swedish clarinet virtuoso — and mime — Martin Fröst.

I’m trying to be polite about this. Fröst is a good player and, I suppose, a competent mime, and Hillborg wrote the piece to suit Fröst’s multiple talents. But this banal and sentimental score, accompanied by kitschy lighting effects (Fröst turns to face the orchestra and “blows out the light” — twice!), goes on for 20 minutes. Fröst returned for an unscheduled bravura klezmer piece called Let’s Be Happy!, “arranged,” he said, “by my little brother.”

Dudamel caught Ravel’s neurasthenic swooning, the hypnotic leisureliness of Berlioz’s Adagio “Scene in the Country,” and the nastiness of his Witch’s Sabbath finale (could Gothenburg’s brasses sound otherwise?). But solos were far from brilliant, and the ensemble couldn’t muster enough volume for Ravel’s final cataclysm. The crucial waltzing in both pieces lacked lift and insinuation. Encores included a selection from Dudamel’s new Fiesta CD, during which the brass players shed their jackets, spun around, and clapped. The audience ate it up.

The Boulez concert was on another level. The audience at Albert Hall surrounds the stage, so I was actually facing Boulez. I could see his calm, serious, undemonstrative expression while I heard music of scintillating clarity, aching tenderness, and overwhelming intensity. He hadn’t the slightest trouble getting the orchestra (which he’s conducted for decades) and the combined BBC and London Symphony Choruses to blow the lid off the hall in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (the text of which is in Old Church Slavonic). This was only the third time Boulez has ever conducted it. (Phoenix Arts editor Jeffrey Gantz reviewed one of the other two, in Paris in 2003.) Simon Preston, in Boston last year to accompany the BSO in Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony, played Albert Hall’s monumental organ, and New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill’s idiomatic Slavonic and hefty projection stood out among the four vocal soloists.

The program began with a visceral, uplifting Sinfonietta, with 14 trumpets. In a free pre-concert dialogue with the director of the Proms, Boulez talked about the difference between the American minimalists’ repetitions and Janáček’s, with their more complex rhythms, harmonies, and sonorities. Boulez turned the insinuating, unsettling Capriccio for Piano and Winds (with the impressive Jean-Efflam Bavouzet), by turns intimate and circusy, fleet and galumphing, delicate and assertive, into a mesmerizing dream world.

London’s rich theater season had me bypassing Mamma Mia! for the National Theatre. In Melly Still’s breathtaking staging, Thomas Middleton’s verbally and emotionally corrosive The Revenger’s Tragedy became an all-too-timely exploration of the destruction and self-destruction wreaked by the compulsion to get even. (One of the characters is named Supervacuo.) Superb actors like Rory Kinnear (Roy’s son) and The History Boys’ Jamie Parker spoke Jacobean blank verse like real-life Jacobeans. On the revolving stage created by Still and Ty Green, the major “rooms” were separated by sinister narrow corridors, from or into which you couldn’t predict where an actor might emerge or disappear. Sexy contemporary costumes and the mix of early music (countertenor Jake Arditti) and rock (DJs differentGear) provided vivid visual and sound images for a brutal, decadent, trivial world not unlike our own.

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