Sunday matinée at Disney Hall, October 14, 2012
It was a wonderful afternoon at Disney Hall, proving how an orchestra ticket took me on a journey I didn't know I'd be having, back into my early life, rich with emotion and play. And everyone was there with me -- the Los Angeles Philharmonic, singers, animators, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and all the children and adults in the audience.
It was a multi-media double-bill of Ravel's Mother Goose ballet suite and Oliver Knussen's one-act opera of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are. While the music was going on, singers and actors played on stage and animated pictures filled a huge screen in front of the organ pipes.
"It was a bit confusing," two eight-year-old girls told me at intermission. "But the bad beast was good!" After a delicious smile, each girl also shot right out, "I liked the music."
I liked the music too, and also being in the audience where we could all revel in childhood fears and wonder, looking up at pictures and down at the players and over to the actors, as if we were on a merry-go-round, lots of fun.
Where the Wild Things Are, a fantasy opera in nine scenes, made a different turn of the childhood wheel. It was modern, active and flashy, dynamically colorful, leaping and dissonant in the voices, demanding and exciting. Especially lovable in a long thick grey wolf tail was Max, sung by soprano Claire Booth, supported by a rag doll chorus who sauntered about stage.
Sendak's devilish spirit, which says, "Childhood is a tricky business, usually something goes wrong," finds its perfect partner in Knussen's wild mélange of techniques, quotes from other composers, and nonsense syllables; there's a mazurka, a ragtime, and a barbershop chorus. The six-man percussion section of anvils, field drums, mallet instruments, suspended cymbals, a balloon with pin, a spring coil, a wind machine, whip and scrapers, was all bursting energy.
But it's not just a children's opera. When Max hears his mother's humming, dismisses the Wild Things, returns home and sits down to supper, the words "It was quite hot" flash on the screen, and then it all goes dark, the curtain comes down and we experience the prospects of a pretty awful finality. Complex harmonically and vocally, it was sometimes a wild merry-go-round spinning out of control.
Ravel's ballet suite Mother Goose, based on five fairy tales about innocent children encountering difficulties, uses recurring motifs and evocative orchestrations to create moods of gamboling, dreaming, meandering, and losing then finding peace. The enchantment was infectious under Gustavo's direction (perhaps he was thinking of his baby son): the music tip-toed, swung, waltzed, rolled and wriggled as children's imaginations go.
Ravel's magic grew quietly, misterioso at first, as the onstage children curled up with their mother and the story began. Gustavo instructed the orchestra in rehearsal to "bring it all down to small," and they did. He built the piece slowly to delicious ambrosia in the final tale, "The Fairy Garden," which was lush but restrained, its gorgeous sounds bringing tears to peoples' eyes.
They brought tears to mine. When I was a child, my piano teacher told me that Ravel learned about detail and intricacy from his father, a Swiss engineer who always was taking apart watches, and that Ravel had tiny hands-which made playing his own music a problem, and somehow I always felt sorry for him, especially when I thought of his hands having to cross over and under a lot to play the complex parts which larger hands would play completely differently. Maybe that's why he arranged Mother Goose, which he originally wrote for piano duet, for orchestra.
Throughout the Ravel, Netia Jones, an English director of opera and video, created superb animations of black and white engravings from the 19th century, which began moving almost imperceptibly, cross-hatching trembling. To signal narrative motion, flocks of black birds flew out of the words. Ms. Jones sat with computers and crew below the stage directing the action.
Disney Hall is a perfect place acoustically to hear everything that's going on in the Ravel as the instrumental sections in the orchestra join up in Ravel's endless different pairings: cellos with woodwinds, strings with percussion, violas and piano, harp and celeste, horns with strings-all heard so clearly.