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Esa-Pekka SALONEN in Rehearsal
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
With contributions from Ernest Fleischmann and John Santana (KKGO) (1997)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) La mer (1903-05)
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 317 [60:00]

‘ There’s no, if I may say, bullsh*t ...’ says Ernest Fleischmann, managing director of the Los Angeles Phil. Yes, viewers have been warned, but most of the language on this DVD is of course civilised and restricted to Debussy and musicianship. Fleischmann is summing up Salonen’s relationship with the orchestra, and in a way the bulk of this production.
There is inevitably some arty cleverness: sequences of various orchestral shoes, Salonen’s hands in slow motion, rolling waves and skyscapes which, while lifting the look of the thing are little more than visual padding, giving the eyes a rest from often wobbly ‘live action’ views of musicians and conductor. The opening sequence of John Santana playing the then new recording of ‘La mer’ over ‘the air’ isn’t carried very far. His voice weighs in from time to time with quotes from Debussy in a rich West Coast accent. Salonen gives some of his opinions on Debussy and his place in the 20th century, but the real star of this DVD is the orchestra.
A team of cameramen has been let loose among the players of the Los Angeles Phil. Variously inclined, one seems to have fallen in love with the glockenspiel, another lies at the feet of one of the trumpet players. The least inventive linger around the edges, so that we get the piccolo end of the woodwinds, lots of double-bass close-ups, not-so-shiny horns with their battered mutes, well-worn timpani, and much zooming in from the sidelines which amplifies the wobbliness. In fact, what you really get is quite an accurate portrait of an orchestra at work, with some nice little touches of yawning, oft tacet heavy brass players (the brass, not the players), the violin leader doing his leading thing and keeping everyone waiting, and the odd chat going on here and there. Spectators interested in Hoffnung-style type spotting will see all their favourites: twitchy and intense oboists, a flautist looking incredulous that she should be asked to play louder (‘I’ll try…’), highly strung harpists and relaxed-looking rank and file strings. Listeners who only get their music through CDs miss out on the real life experience of making music. It is very easy to forget that what comes out of your speakers was once made by fairly ordinary men and women, and it’s nice to see such a talented crowd of musicians close-up.
Salonen comes over as a fairly easy person to work with. There are some shots of home life and young children as he talks about his changing attitude to La mer as he has progressed through fifteen years of conducting. Little touches like this put what amount to few words neatly into some kind of context, and much of the time the music is allowed to speak for itself. Despite sometimes looking as if they would like to eat the conductor alive, the orchestra seems to get on well enough with Salonen. There is a big laugh when he exhorts them to wear the same clothes for the next day’s recording, reminding me of that wonderful Ephraim Kishon story about how a crowd of extras at a film set nearly asphyxiate in week-old garments, all for the sake of continuity.
There is some serious work going on, and students will lap up one or two comments regarding thematic development and orchestration, but a sixty minute documentary can only ever scratch the surface of a piece like La mer. This might serve as an introduction, and we get the chance to listen to some of the most beautiful moments being played gorgeously, but University students looking for source material will profit from looking further. Conducting students will find this an interesting glimpse into how things can be when an internationally recognised conductor stands in front of a superbly professional orchestra playing a piece they already know back to front. In other words, there’s not really very much to learn, but it’s nice to dream.
… .oh, by the way – it’s not the rich brass sounds or elegant conducting which you will be showing your classical muso-mates when they come round for beer and disc bashing. Esa-Pekka calling his agent on a monster mobile phone from his car and having to put up with a lowly receptionist who either doesn’t know who he is or who has had bad luck with atmospherics will have you in light stitches. I can’t imagine many superstar conductors allowing such a clip to be included, so, rock on Salonen!
Dominy Clements


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Editor's Note - the DVD reviewed above is not available through AmazonUS. The link is to what appears to be the same recording through a different label (Image Entertainment) in NTSC format, with different cover images and a much earlier release date.

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