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Getting Off on Handel With Emmanuelle Haim and LA Phil

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CLASSICAL MUSIC
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Emmanuelle Haim Conducts LA Phil in an all-Handel program, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Nov. 17, 2011.

If you're looking for the first woman conductor to be a superstar, look no further. Emmanuelle Haim is young, she's beautiful and she's got the musical goods to collaborate with a great orchestra at a very high artistic level. By the time Emmanuelle gets through with LA, and LA with her, the town will have become a better and a different place to be, classical musically speaking.

The moment Haim bounced onto stage, she had a small but enthusiastic audience riveted on her every nervous move and intoxicated with her every shy smile and glance. She was well-outfitted for her work, like a classical music Cirque du Soleil princess, with a flouncy thing around her waist that looked funny when she was standing up and tres elegant when she was sitting down.

The concert had begun a few minutes before when concertmaster Martin Chalifour came on stage to lead the tuning ritual. He plucked an A from a giant harpsichord facing the organ loft, penetrating deeply into the middle of the orchestra. Haim made her entrance, acknowledged the electric greetings of the crowd, rolled her stool around as if uncertain where exactly it should go, made a movement as if to sit down, then stood up as tall as she could go, swooped her arms together, and Handel's Concerto Grosso Opus Six, Number One was on.

Coming into last night's concert, the question was whether Haim, a genius on her many recordings, could convince LA Phil's musicians to work with her rather than give her lip service in rehearsals and then revert to stolid tradition in the concert. Based on her performance under such scrutiny, Emmanuelle Haim can more than just handle LA Phil: They are a match made in heaven.

Everything the small and hardy band of musicians did increased the music's inherent exhilaration and set off sonic swells that filled the Hall. The musicians' ability and willingness to make a commitment to such serious and unfamiliar work was apparent, after a sluggish start, in the string player's strokes and bows, in the two magical oboists' and the one rustic bassoonist's runs and trills, and the French horns' burnished heraldry. The winds got it right away, but it took the strings 15 minutes before they started to play with reasonably authentic Baroque style. First violinist Chalifour led by example, casually throwing off seemingly spontaneous embellishments to what Handel wrote down for publication. Chalifour delighted the music with creamy legato runs and kittenish adornments, and once or twice in indecent duet with the first second violin.

While a determined lot of cellos and double basses held down the fort at the low end, where Handel doesn't ask for too much except keen sensitivity, timbre, precision and near-perfect intonation, the violas provided an erogenous zone of sound in the middle register. The section was having so much fun that two of the violists occasionally exchanged smiles as if from the sheer fun of playing.

Thanks to music director Gustavo Dudamel for making the Phil a more accommodating place for new musical persoanlities and tastes, and for working so lovingly on his trademark radiant transparency with the interior strings. And hats off to CEO Deborah Borda for engaging Ms. Haim. It looks like a very wise classical music investment.

If Emmanuelle Haim can be signed to a long term pact she could become, especially with the help of star-builder Borda, a conductor of superstar proportions, with a repertoire all her own. The riches reaped would be indescribable, and the advancement of classical music would be exponential.

Best of all, for the first time ever, mothers can let their daughters grow up to be conductors.

Truth in reviewing: I left at intermission, due to a prior commitment.

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