Review: Is it finally time to take Saint-Saëns seriously?

Review: Is it finally time to take Saint-Saëns seriously?

“For hours after Jean-Philippe Collard had left Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto a pile of shards on the Hollywood Bowl stage,” Alan Rich wrote in L.A. Weekly in the summer of 1999, “I racked my brain trying — without success, as it happened — to think of a worse piece of music by a composer of renown.” In my case, I dismissed Saint-Saëns’ concerto, known as “L’Égyptien,” as “ridiculous” in The Times.

What were we thinking? Not differently from each other or from received wisdom about one of France’s once most celebrated and popular composers. After he died at age 86 in December 1921, Saint-Saëns’ reputation went into steady decline. Debussy, Ravel and Satie led the early 20th century French musical revolution, while “The Splendor of Saint-Saëns,” the title of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Bowl program Thursday night, represented perceived glib, outdated Romanticism.

Yes, Saint-Saëns wrote “The Carnival of the Animals,” properly irresistible to children, great pianists (Martha Argerich, for one) and swanning ballerinas. But of Saint-Saëns’ otherwise vast output, only one of his 13 operas (“Samson and Delilah”), two of his 10 concertos (the first for cello and the second for piano) and his Symphony No. 3 (the last of his five symphonies, two of which are so little esteemed that they remain unnumbered) also have remained relatively well known. You might have surmised Thursday night, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the “Bacchanale” from “Samson and Delilah,” the First Cello Concerto and the Third Symphony (“Organ”), that even those hits are no longer a great draw. Attendance was noticeably smaller than at other L.A. Phil programs this summer.

Yet Saint-Saëns’ reputation has, indeed, greatly changed over the past quarter-century. He may have loathed French Impressionism and considered Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” the work of a modernist madman, but Saint-Saëns is increasingly seen as a kind of radical proto-Postmodernist. For all of his reactionary animosity toward “modern” music, he was a remarkable eclectic, who traveled widely, particularly to the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, absorbing musical traditions before they became Westernized. He spent time in Russia with Tchaikovsky. For all his lavish Romanticism, he was also a refined classicist, studied in classical literature and archeology. He had a scientific mind and was an accomplished mathematician and amateur astronomer.

As a child-prodigy pianist, organist and composer, Saint-Saëns was sometimes called a French Mozart. He caught the attention of Berlioz and Liszt, both of whom were considerable influences. He was a wondrous and unapologetic melodist. He was open to a wide range of influence, particularly falling under the spell of what he heard (and studied!) on his travels. He was a glamorous and original orchestrator who sprinkled glitter freely, although that came to sound like kitsch to Alan and me in his piano writing for “L’Égyptien.”

A combination of scholarship, newly illuminating performances, the rediscovery of neglected works and an unstuffy rage for eclecticism in our current musical culture has now made Saint-Saëns not just palatable but prescient. A brilliant new recording of the piano concertos by the young pianist Alexandre Kantorow, with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, conducted by his father, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, makes even “L’Égyptien” sound like a remarkable panache from a more innocent time.

Recent recordings of “Ascanio” and “Le Timbre d’Argent” reveal a French opera composer of far greater scope than previously imagined. Two new sets of the five symphonies provide further revelations. Kantorow and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège offer depth and flair. The other, with Cristian Macelaru leading Orchestre National de France, is plainer. But the Romanian conductor happens to be music director of the Cabrillo Festival, which was founded by Lou Harrison, California’s great melodist and eclectic. Like Saint-Saëns, Harrison, as he put it, spread his toys over a large acreage.

Saint-Saëns, moreover, did come to the Bay Area in 1915 for the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of his Third Symphony. While there, he conducted the premiere of his “Hail California,” written for grand organ and John Philip Sousa’s band, as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal.

The long-forgotten “Hail California,” which includes references to the “Marseillaise” and the “Star Spangled Banner” (there are no recordings but it can found on YouTube) would have made a lively addition to Thursday’s otherwise conventional Saint-Saëns evening. But the program was, nonetheless, well designed to bring pleasure.

This was Paolo Bortolameolli’s last concert as the L.A. Phil’s associate conductor. The Chilean conductor, who is the music director of the Mexican youth orchestra Sinfónica Azteca, is himself an imaginative eclectic who last month led a varied L.A. Phil Green Umbrella program at the Ford Theater, as well as a concert with Devonté Hynes.

Still, Bortolameolli, more suave than showy, brought a welcome sophistication to Saint-Saëns. The cello concerto begins with a dramatic A-minor chord in the orchestra, which seemingly startled an alarmed soloist. A second theme is a lovely melody, typically heard as a sigh of relief. Out of nowhere the concerto roams into a world of fancifully skipping minuets before returning more forcefully to the beginning drama.

Cellists tend to seek, with powerful expressivity, a theatrical narrative. There was, though, nothing startling about Bortolameolli and the young Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández. This was Saint-Saëns the careful classicist, Saint-Saëns the stargazer; Saint-Saëns the traveler listening to others’ music, not expressing his own ego.

Ferrändez’s tone grew gracefully stronger throughout the performance, treating the concerto as a work in which he could follow his own path of discovery. His tone is exquisite but he never exploits it for its own sake. He produces excitement through rhythm but keeps that understated as well, so that the impression is that all the magic is in the music.

These were also strengths in Bortolameolli’s performance of the “Organ” Symphony. Saint-Saëns’ use of the organ is an oddity, but so is the piano, with two pianists who sit next to the organ. The piano serves here as an instrument of glitter, and Saint-Saëns needs 20 fingers for it to supply the proper amount.

It is a wonderful symphony — somber at first, skittish much of the time, dazzling most of the time. The organ is used in the incense-laden slow movement for its otherworldly low drones and its sensual dialogue with the strings.

The last movement is a spectacle. When you are trying out new loudspeakers for a home stereo, this is the movement to play to test bass and treble and make sure your amplifier has enough power. It probably doesn’t. The symphony is all but unrecordable, and it challenged even the Bowl’s monstrous sound system.

Bortolameolli had no tricks up his sleeve. He let the symphony unfold, delightedly when that was the mood, sumptuously when that was called for and, at the end, magisterially rather than brashly. The L.A. Phil takes to this kind of thing with ease. The Bowl less so, Saint-Saëns’ ethereally poignant transitions seeming to be catnip to overhead aircraft. But no helicopter is a match for the Finale.

While Bortolameolli now moves on — a major music director post somewhere seems all but certain — he will return to Walt Disney Concert Hall next season for a Green Umbrella concert.

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