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A musical dilemma in Los Angeles

Lionel Rolfe, music critic, says the inclusion of rock -- more commerce than music -- in the Helsinki festival underscored his opinion about its director's inferior understanding of classical music, and how this opinion developed into a dilemma

Throughout the end of the '90s I was on the horns (and strings) of a dilemma that will tell you a lot about the classical music scene in Los Angeles.

It was with a certain amount of glee I listened to some delicious gossip that a violinist friend had picked up while on a recent trip to Finland. He keeps up with gossip from Finland because he lived and performed there for some years.

Did you know that Esa-Pekka Salonen was involved in a scandal with the Helsinki Festival (which he ran) where millions of dollars disappeared without anyone knowing where? he asked.

My ears perked up at this word about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Nordic-looking musical director.

I once turned down an offer to be the music critic of the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, after talking to my mother, Yaltah Menuhin, about it. She said I wouldn't want to take the job: "You'll hear so much awful music you'll get to hate music."

I already had encountered some stormy seas after writing a series about the great musicians who lived in Los Angeles right after the Holocaust -- people like Stravinsky, Castle-Nuevo Tedesco, Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg.

Yaltah used to concertize and tour with Michael Mann, a violinist whose father was Thomas Mann, the great German writer whose greatest novel, Doctor Faustus, was written about Schoenberg.

Mann was not a musician himself. When he started writing Doctor Faustus, his son, then with the San Francisco Symphony, was his dad's musical advisor on the project.

Mann's book was, to put it mildly, a powerful commentary and satire on Schoenberg. The protagonist, a composer named Leverkuhn, like Schoenberg, created a system of atonality based on numerology, and then created music that reflected the descent of Germany into barbarous, primeval fascism, a theme that dominated Mann's work.

I wrote about the experience more than once, and every time I did, Schoenberg's son, a local municipal judge, would contact the publisher and try to get me fired from whatever publication I was writing for at the time.

Reporting musician opinion

My great sin in the series on great composers and the Holocaust was to repeat what all the various significant musicians, many of whom used to regularly gather in my mother's living room, thought. Almost without exception, they thought Schoenberg a fraud, and worse. Their sentiments were summed up best by Ernest Gold, a Viennese film composer best known for the music to the movie Exodus, who said Schoenberg's problem was he didn't "know no good tunes" and that's why he had to create a system to compose by. After 50 years Schoenberg made it big, audiences can't sit through a performance of his stuff.

Anyway my dilemma was that Esa-Pekka Salonen particularly rubbed me the wrong way. I had heard him on the radio conduct some Brahms, and I actually was angry. It wasn't only that he didn't understand it or feel it, he was simply disinterested. It didnšt speak to him, or to his audience.

When I compared him to his predecessor, Mario Giulini, it was particularly bad.

Giulini took the Los Angeles Phil, which despite its overblown reputation is sometimes quite second rate, and performed Beethoven that made me cry: it was so incredible.

So the news about Salonenšs travails in his native Finland, which hadn't been written about yet outside his native Finland, brought out the worst in me. A fellow journalist, Jeffrey Stalk, and I researched and wrote up the story about the financial irregularities at the Helsinki Festival which was under Salonen's control.

During the course of writing about the incident, I found out that the Helsinki Festival, which for three decades had been dedicated to classical music, now included rock music.

This underscored everything I had felt by Salonen's lackadaisical Brahms. I knew I didn't like the man. I confess to nicknaming him Fresser Pecker.

Now, I know I part company with many people when I explain my attitude to rock music.

I understand the validity of rock's roots in blues, but that has become a highly tenuous connection. To me, rock is commerce, not music. Just as the importance of the science of physics can't be compared to hucksters on television selling psychic nostrums, rock can't be compared to classical music.

I suppose having rock in a classical music festival particularly offends me because rock music has the power of giant multinational recording companies behind it that can package and sell just about anything, whereas classical music survives because man's nature includes the sacred as well as the profane.

The greatest musical creator of the 20th century was not Elvis Presley, but Bela Bartok. Prokofiev and Stravinsky were no slouches, either. Neither was George Gershwin. But Bartok dominates this century the way Bach and Beethoven did previous centuries.

A while after I had written my piece, Salonen was playing Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony written right after World War II. My wife insisted we go hear it. She said I had to give Salonen a chance in person.

The concert opened with Salonen butchering a Stravinsky violin work as badly as he had macerated Brahms. Surprising myself, I felt sadness, not vindication.

But after the intermission, the orchestra came alive; and this most incredible post-World War II music filled the auditorium.

I'm not going to use my hypewriter, but it was great.

I was badly shaken and I pondered the matter at length. Salonen is the musical director, and that is too bad. Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Stravinsky he had butchered. But he acquitted himself incredibly in the case of Messiaen.

Maybe the way out of the dilemma is simple: have two musical directors, one for post-World War II and the other for all the rest of the previous centuries.

(Lionel Rolfe is the author of 'Death and Redemption in London and Los Angeles', a book available electronically from Deadendstret

From our archives

When Rolfe wrote a book -- The history of the Menuhins, and why Yehudi was upset

Lonely in LA -- Read The Music Magazine's exclusive interview with Rolfe

Send your view

Quick external links

You can buy an electronic copy of Rolfe's new book at Deadend Street.

Visit The Menuhin Foundation, Brussels

A Menuhin discography

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