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A night of gods and witches: Dudamel and the LA Phil open the 2011/2012 season with Adams, Benzecry, and Berlioz

There is a point in the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique when funeral bells loudly toll and announce the beginning of a dance of witches. The ominous three note sequence repeats — forte, then piano — and continues on as the tubas begin playing the Dies Irae from the old Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Most orchestras play that sequence on tubular chimes; not the Los Angeles Philharmonic — they use giant bells that the orchestra acquired a few years ago when Esa-Pekka Salonen was still Music Director, ones that would look quite at home hanging a block away in the campanile of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. When they are struck, you don’t just hear them, you feel them resonate through your skull.

Friday night, when percussionist Perry Dreiman banged his mallet to play the C-C-G on those giant bells and the shock waves hit me, I immediately thought:

Damn, it’s really good to be back in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

A few minutes later, as the final cord chord of the grotesquely triumphant movement subsided, the audience roared in approval.  It capped a solid evening by the Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, one that entertained without trying to be profound.  For me, the evening was about enjoying the playing of the music more than the music being played.

Anyone familiar with the live recording Mr. Dudamel made with the orchestra before he was Music Director would easily recognize the interpretation from Friday:  lush, brash, in your face, unabashedly thrilling.  When Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted the same work at WDCH less than a year ago, he kept the giant bells off-stage, the most obvious example of an interpretation that was more restrained overall.  Mr. Frühbeck’s take was more “symphonie,” Mr. Dudamel’s is more “fantastique.”

That’s not to say that there weren’t any differences when compared to the 2008 recording.  In Friday night’s performance, Mr. Dudamel seemed to press the waltz in the second movement “Ball” scene a little more, while giving the “March to the Scaffold” a little more space before the frenetic head-chopping finale.  The orchestra’s sound was more tidy, likely due to the experience of working together over the past few seasons and the musicians’ increased ability to interpret what the young maestro requests.  The marvelous strings also continue to reflect Mr. Dudamel’s preference for a less steely sound than the one favored by Mr. Salonen while still maintaining their familiar brightness.

Individual contributions were notable throughout:  Michele Zukovsky’s clarinet shined from beginning to end, most especially during the jaunty passages of the Witches’ Sabbath; how blessed Los Angeles has been to have the benefit of her truly magnificent playing for 50 years!  Thomas Hooten played the cornet obligato in the second movement with elegance and verve.  Carolyn Hove shared the loudest cheers w/ Ms. Zukovsky, the phrases traded back and forth between her English horn and Marion Kuszyk’s balcony-residing oboe the highlight of an otherwise excessively long and mundane third movement (though Mr. Dudamel gave it particularly slow pace, I blame Berlioz entirely).  Whitney Crockett (bassoon), David Buck (flute), and Ariana Ghez (oboe) added many tasty moments.

Illapa, Incan god of thunder

Illapa, Incan god of thunder

The orchestra also sunk its collective teeth deeply into Rituales Amerindios by Esteban Benzecry, performed in its U.S. Premiere.  Designed as a triptych representing Aztec, Mayan, and Inca deities for wind, water and thunder, the music was evocative without ever becoming pastiche.  You get bits reminding you of Revueltas, Ginastera, and even Salonen, as I previously mentioned when discussing the YouTube videos posted of the Gothenburg Symphony’s performance of the piece.

But the “videos” don’t actually show the performance, and you don’t see how Mr. Benzecry creates his imagery.  Mr. Dudamel gave some comments to the audience about how the composer is able to create sounds and textures that are unexpected, seemingly made by instruments that aren’t visible, and he reassured everyone that they were in fact on stage.  It was enlightening to see how the atmosphere was created:  some of the techniques — strumming the inside of the piano, bowing percussion — are seen with regularity; others, such as blowing through brass instruments with mouthpieces removed, less so.  Obvious tricks were kept to a minimum (one water stick) or absent altogether (no wind machine).

The LA Phil played the piece with a bit more snap then Mr. Dudamel’s Swedish orchestra, not shocking considering the local band’s greater exposure to and experience with Latin themed music, orchestral or otherwise.  That said, the difference was less notable than one might have predicted; credit both Mr.Dudamel and Mr. Benzecry for their parts in that.  And despite what others may say to the contrary, I prefer the ending as Mr. Benzecry intended it — without the stray percussion thwack that appeared Friday night.

The appreciative audience gave it an enthusiastic response, though I’ve certainly seen louder cheers for other World and U.S. premieres given in Disney Hall.  It’ll be interesting to see what kind of life Rituales Amerindios has beyond the performances the LA Phil will give it here and in San Francisco.  This is the second piece of Mr. Benzecry that the orchestra has performed (the first being a world premiere in a Green Umbrella concert).  Expect to see and hear more of this composer around these parts.

The concert opened with Tromba lontana by John Adams, the orchestra’s official “Creative Chair” and de facto composer-in-residence.  The LA Phil played the anti-fanfare with an appropriate lightness, creating an airy atmosphere that served as a calm foil to the theatrics to come.  Chris Still joined Tom Hooten to play the trumpet parts referred to in the work’s title, and even though Mr. Dudamel placed them within the forest of organ pipes above the stage, the overall experience from WDCH’s orchestra seats was more of visual separation than creating a particularly distinct sonic effect.

Random Trivia:

  • I counted five times that Mr. Dudamel’s feet left the podium, and at least a half dozen more where he nearly became airborne.  IMHO, they were all appropriate for the moment.
  • Was that really Kenny G roaming around?
  • Attendance was high, but given that it was the first regular season concert of the year, I was a bit surprised that there were more than a handful of empty seats throughout the hall and at all price points.  Prime locations in each section — seats that would typically be occupied by subscribers — had gaps.  Whether the program led some to switch other concerts, or the single-ticket demand is not as frenetic as it once was for concerts featuring Mr. Dudamel, or concerts without a soloist just don’t sell as well, we can’t be sure.  I’ll guess that it’s a combination of all three factors.
  • A little less shocking but still appreciated:  no one clapped between movements, even after the most whipped-up movements in both the Berlioz and Benzecry.  Combined with the appreciative if slightly tempered response to the concert overall, I’d say this was a discerning audience.
  • Philharmonic President, Deborah Borda, and VP of Artistic Planning, Chad Smith, were spending quite a bit of time chatting up Los Angeles Times music critic, Mark Swed (on more than one occasion, I had to interrupt their conversation to get to my seat).  I don’t think that this is a bad thing at all, it is what it is.  That said, did they spend any time talking with any of the other local music critics sitting just a few seats away?  Not so much.
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Photo credits:

  • Centre panel from Memling‘ triptych Last Judgment (c. 1467–1471), from Wikipedia
  • Illapa playing a pan flute:  http://www.taringa.net/posts/info/8024279/teologia-Inca.html
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9 thoughts on “A night of gods and witches: Dudamel and the LA Phil open the 2011/2012 season with Adams, Benzecry, and Berlioz

  1. I’m waiting for Brian to slag Dudamel. 🙂

    Unfortunately, his programs at Davies both sold out while I wrestling with SFS and their web site. I’m unlikely to see the LAPO here, though perhaps I will make an exception to my usual practice of not asking for press tickets unless I’m writing a paid review or something for SFCV’s Music News.

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  2. I was hoping to see one of the LA Phil concerts @ Davies, but the day job got in the way. I’m going to have to make it up there for at least one concert this season.

    Any plans to come down for any of the unstaged operas at WDCH (e.g. Orango, Don Giovanni, The Other Mary) or LA Opera shows?

    Brian tweeted about the concert, so I’m guessing its just a matter of time before he chimes in.

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  3. Forgot to mention something . . .
    Gustavo had the orchestra seated a little differently than usual: first and second violins together on his left, violas next to the edge of the stage on his right, with cellos and bases to his right between the violas and seconds. Based on pictures from the gala night, he used it Tuesday night too. In previous years, he’s used this configuration sporadically, but eventually went back to the what has been the norm for the LA Phil at WDCH:
    v1 – vc – vla – v2

    No telling if the reconfiguration will stick this time.

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  4. The “final CORD”? Does this mean that the orchestra will remain cordless from now on??
    Seriously though – quite a lot of interesting and perceptive stuff in your report.

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  5. When the first program of the season includes Adams, Benzecry and Berlioz – in that order – it creates an impression that the programming was planned alphabetically… The season should probably end with a piece by Zwilich!

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  6. Pingback: What is your favorite performance of a warhorse? « All is Yar

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