On paper, Friday night’s Los Angeles Philharmonic concert seemed straightforward enough: a program filled with loads of well-known hum-along tunes, a beloved old-school conductor (Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos) on the podium, and a popular soloist (Lynn Harrell) joining in on the fun. In the concert hall, everything was generally as one would expect: the music sounded beautiful and all the musicians involved could rightly take credit. The audience gave a de rigueur standing ovation at the end and everyone, including me, walked away with a smile.
Pretty much writes itself, right? Except that just below the surface was all the stuff really worth mentioning. Nothing Earth-shattering, mind you. Just a moment here, an observational tidbit there, and a very telling post-concert comment from Mr. Harrell that helped make the concert more interesting to me than a just a collection of well-played chestnuts.
The Haydn Cello Concerto in C started off the evening. The lost-and-found early work is a contemporary of Haydn’s 6th Symphony (performed at Saturday & Sunday’s concerts, but not Friday) and contains bits of baroque style while already having the sound of the composer’s classical sensibilities. I typically hear the work played with pointillist exactitude. Mr. Harrell took a freer approach, controlled yet relaxed, occasionally sounding like he was about to burst forth into something grander but never allowing it to be overblown. It was a thoroughly modern yet still completely classical interpretation. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill C major Haydn cello concerto.
As if to underscore that fact, he offered his own quirky first movement cadenza: it started with virtuoso figurations before evolving into a series of quotations that included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, then Haydn’s Surprise Symphony where the orchestra replaced the usual forte “surprise” with the opening string tremolo to Mahler’s 2nd Symphony(!!) with Mr. Harrell working his way through the Resurrection’s ensuing cello line before morphing into, um, the Mexican hat dance (really). It was both cheeky and impressive. As Mr. Harrell would later say, he wouldn’t think that such a cadenza would have been appropriate for a Mozart cello concerto if such a thing existed, but Haydn was witty composer who filled his music with all kinds of jokes, and so it seemed right. I couldn’t have agreed more. All great fun, but not at the expense of great music. Mr. Harrell has always been my favorite cellist, and this just gave me another reason to keep him in that spot.
The next two works offered completely different quirkiness, care of Señor Frühbeck.
Friday night, he conducted his own orchestration of Albéniz’s Suite española. It’s easy to enjoy, a bright and colorful take on the composer’s piano suite which neither illuminated nor damaged the original version. The orchestration seemed a tad predictable, even repetitive, but no one seemed to mind, including me. His arrangement gave the percussionists much to do, while also offering ample flute solos which Catherine Karoly played elegantly.
He ended the concert with the fastest version of Ravel’s Bolero that I’ve ever heard, in person or on a recording. Deborah Borda, the LA Phil’s President and CEO, made the same observation later in the evening during the “Casual Friday” on-stage discussion. In the pre-concert lecture, Lucinda Carver mentioned that at the work’s US premiere, Ravel was so unhappy at Toscanini for taking tempos faster than the written metronome marking that he refused to take a bow when the maestro pointed to him. If the composer were in WDCH last night, I’d guess he’d be similarly displeased.
In his own post-concert remarks, Mr. Frühbeck justified his decision by saying real boleros are danced that fast. He’d be the one to know, so I’m not gonna say he’s wrong. What I will say is that it was waaaay faster than I’d prefer, but I was willing to go along for the ride.
The LA Phil musicians kept up as best they could, with only a few of them trying to stretch their solo lines a little longer than the conductor’s insistant tempo wanted them to do. Things started off with Principal Percussionist Raynor Carroll playing the vital snare drum line with precision and Catherine Karoly unwinding a sultry pianissimo opening phrase on the flute. After that were a series of fine solos, of which my favorite were by Philip O’Connor sitting in as E-flat clarinet, Douglas Masek on tenor sax, Whitney Crockett on bassoon, and most of all, Nitzan Haroz with particularly slippery work on the trombone.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic might not have a Principal Guest Conductor right now, but for all intents and purposes, the 89-ear old Spaniard is it. He has led the orchestra more than anyone not named Gustavo Dudamel this calendar year, and he is the only conductor without an official title to get two weeks of concerts during the 2012/2013 season. As many have observed, a mutual admiration society has developed between orchestra and conductor. When you have that kind of relationship, official or not, you sometimes get to do things other guest conductors don’t get to do (conduct your own sugar-coated orchestration of another composer’s work) — or maybe even get away with things that others don’t (an arrestingly brisk Bolero) — and still get asked back. I’d be shocked if we see any less of him at WDCH or the Hollywood Bowl in coming seasons.
The primary trade-off of going to a “Casual Friday” concert and losing a work on the program (like the Haydn 6th) is that you get the opportunity to hear some discussion by conductor, soloist, and an orchestra member on stage after the concert. Whether or not this trade-off is worth it is rather unpredictable, and depends on how interesting the discussion ends up being.
On this night, there were lots of good nuggets, many of which I mentioned above. The most noteworthy comment, however, came from Mr. Harrell as an unsolicited follow-up to a question actually directed at the conductor (and I’m paraphrasing here):
- He made a point of mentioning that while he has always admired the orchestra through his many years playing with him, since Mr. Dudamel has taken over as Music Director, the LA Phil plays classical music with more spirit and life, within “Classical” period norms but with a Romantic period sensibility wanting to burst out.
- He added, quite importantly, that this is exactly the kind of approach to Haydn and Mozart he learned when he was Principal Cello of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.
Of all the things that have been said over the past couple of years about Mr. Dudamel’s influence as Music Director on the LA Phil, its sound, and its approach to music-making, I found Mr. Harrell’s comments to be the most telling — especially given that Mr. Dudamel was not on the podium for this particular week.
Random other thoughts:
- I had hoped to return Saturday or Sunday to hear the Haydn Symphony No. 6, Le Matin. I have fond memories of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting it (along with its companions, the 7th Symphony, Le Midi, and the 8th, Le Soir) back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and was looking forward to hearing it in the cleaner acoustics of WDCH. Alas, it didn’t work out — too bad.
- One more thing about the the concerto-grosso-like Haydn 6th Symphony: it is loaded with lots of prominent flute lines, and combined with the solo work Ms. Karoly also had in the Albéniz and Ravel, would have offered quite another showcase for her.
- Kristine Whitson, third chair second violin, was the orchestra’s representative for the post-concert discussion. She gave the opening comments for the concert, including comments about how much she enjoys playing “second fiddle,” much to the surprise of everyone who expects her to pine for being a first violinist. The still young 20-year veteran of the orchestra also mentioned how hard she practiced for her audition for the LA Phil, that Bolero is filled with audition excerpts for the other instruments, and she was glad that she wasn’t playing any of them.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, “Casual Friday” concert: November 16, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Lynn Harrell, cello
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C major, Hob. IIb/1
Albéniz (orch. by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos): Suite española (Castilla, Granada, Sevilla, Asturias, Aragón)
- Lynn Harrell: photo by Christian Steiner
- Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos: courtesy of http://www.spainisculture.com