April 16, 2013 2 Comments
A little over a week ago, David Robertson returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s podium for the first time in over five years, and for the life of me, I have a hard time understanding why it’s taken so long.
First and foremost, his broad repertoire featuring impeccable credentials in 20th and 21st Century music syncs up perfectly with the orchestra’s own sensibilities. Second, he’s visited the San Francisco Symphony multiple times since then, and you’d figure that a subsequent jaunt down the coast wouldn’t have been very difficult. Third, he happens to be a local boy and alum of Santa Monica High School. Finally — and this is most important — the orchestra sounds great and plays well when he conducts.
Net net, I can’t think of another conductor who would be a better candidate for more regular, even annual, visits. His prolonged absence was even more perplexing after hearing an excellent performance of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, the West Coast premiere of a new piano concerto by Steven Mackey, and Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.
Most telling to me was his rendition of the well-worn Mussorgsky/Ravel piece. From his very first time conducting the LA Phil in 1999 to his most recent visit at the helm of the two-week “Concrete Frequency” festival, Mr. Robertson has loaded his programs with challenging, even obscure, works by the likes of Ives, Lutosławski, Crumb, Milhaud, Varèse, among others. This was my first chance to catch him doing a bona-fide orchestral warhorse. And he did not disappoint.
These were fully-saturated Pictures for an Instagram age, sunny in disposition and unabashedly splashy in approach throughout without ever being superficial. Darker sections (e.g. “Bydlo,” “Catacombs,” or “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua”) weren’t very ominous in absolute terms but still felt dark in comparison to the other moments, the same way an overcast 67-degree day passes for bad weather in Los Angeles. Mr. Robertson pushed tempos a bit while still keeping it all in nice proportion — it wasn’t until the work’s climax, “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga),” did he unexpectedly ratchet back the speed, an arresting move that heightened the drama through the finale of “The Great Gate of Kiev.”