A Ravishing Rarity By Schumann Ends The LA Phil Season

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By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri is rare enough on recordings, and almost impossible to come by in live performance. So when Gustavo Dudamel made this evening-length oratorio the culminating event of his Schumann Focus festival June 1, as well as the final concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2017-18 season, attention would be paid. And it was attention well paid – certainly in musical terms. Yes, there were visual trappings, too, which have become almost de rigeur here in FutureWorld – a.k.a. Walt Disney Concert Hall. But we’ll get to that later.

Despite Schumann’s deliberate avoidance of the term, Das Paradies und die Peri – or Paradise and the Periis an oratorio, albeit an unconventional one in three parts, through-composed without components that can be easily excerpted. Apparently it was a hit in its time (1843), and Schumann thought it was one of his best works. But when most oratorios went out of fashion after the Victorian era was over, so did Schumann’s. Many oratorios were revived once the LP record took hold in the middle of the 20th century, yet Das Paradies continued to languish.

Catalogue of Schumann’s large vocal works, edited by his wife Clara.

Some blame its continued obscurity on its hijacking by the Nazis in World War II, but I don’t really see how the text, based on Thomas Moore’s narrative romance poem  Lalla Rookh, can be interpreted as propaganda – and in any case, we still hear plenty of Wagner and Bruckner in our concert halls. Others point to a sentimental story line. A Peri, born of a mortal and a fallen angel (like Strephon in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, the subtitle of which is The Peer and the Peri), is shut out of heaven due to her mixed ancestry and wanders through India, Egypt, and Syria trying to do good deeds, finally achieving redemption in the latter land after failing to do so in the first two. They might have a point there.

As a result, though, generations have missed out on an often beautiful score, mostly lyrical and pastoral, with some invigorating battle music and a dandy short choral fugue in the first section. Especially delightful is the lighter-than-air opening chorus of Part Three, a first-rate match for anything in that vein by Schumann’s colleague, Mendelssohn. There are some wonderfully imaginative orchestrations throughout, especially in Part Two, that explode the notion that Schumann didn’t know his business in that department. There are admittedly some stretches where interest flags, but not enough to discourage further exploration.

In Das Paradies, as well as his cycle of the Schumann symphonies over the previous two weeks, Dudamel has figured out how to make the composer’s orchestrations shine. Everything was clear and gracefully shaped at unhurried tempos hovering around the average speed as gleaned from the piece’s recordings. The LA Phil played beautifully; 60 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale sang with their accustomed fullness and fervency.

Lucy Crowe eventually became a radiant Peri. (Marco Borggreve)

Soprano Lucy Crowe made a sometimes piercing but, in the end, radiant Peri; mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford created a compassionate gatekeeping Angel; tenor Joshua Stewart was a narrator whose voice went in and out of audibility depending upon which way he was facing. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines was superbly menacing in Part One and sorrowful in Part Three as the Old Man. Soprano Ying Fang and tenor Benjamin Bliss were fine as the Young Maiden and Young Man respectively, onstage at all times even though they didn’t have too much to sing.

To simply sing and play the score as well as possible was not enough for the Phil, though. Enter Peter Sellars. When this piece was announced, we were told that his conception would be based on the Getty Museum’s 2016 exhibit of the Silk Road cave temples of Dunhuang, China; yet that idea had apparently vanished. What we got was a two-tiered conception – one a typical bare-bones Sellars concert staging, the other a video interpretation by the Turkish-born video artist Refik Anadol.

Sellars linked ‘Das Paradies’ to present-day Middle East. (Ruth Walz)

The six vocal soloists, all clad in black and barefooted, acted out the story of the Peri or posed in place. The chorus sat on either side of the soloists on an elevated stage behind the orchestra. If one had not attended the pre-concert talk, nor the post-concert panel with Sellars, Dudamel, and Anadol, nor any of Sellars’ masterly sales pitches over the years, one might not have guessed that there was a serious agenda at hand – allusions to the violence in Kashmir, people dying in the streets of Egypt, the slaughter in Syria, the need for people to help each other. And Schumann saw it all coming? We’ll never know.

Hovering slightly to the left of center stage was a massive bulbous sculpture that looked like a human heart or perhaps a giant organic blob upon which Anadol and his international team of artists projected a steady stream of abstract patterns. Anadol called it “A 3D digital realization of the score that responded in real time to the score.” I call it a high-tech update of a good old-fashioned 1960s light show, which did essentially the same thing a half-century ago.

At least the Sellars agenda was applied subtly so that it was not too distracting. The light show offered a dazzling array of digital images. But the real key to penetrating this production was quite simple. Enjoy the music.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

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