“Let’s rrrrock this place.”
Gustavo Dudamel wasn’t talking about the Prokofiev 5th Symphony when he made that comment from the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall, but he could have been. In fact, he should have been. On a Friday night when the performance of a newly commisioned work for electric cello should have provided a bit of a kick in the pants, it was nothing more than a random collection of entertaining moments. The real shaking came thanks to Prokofiev, care of a solid reading by Mr. Dudamel brilliantly played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Mr. Dudamel’s first movement tempos were broad, setting a spacious scene without being overly dramatic and never dragging. It unfolded elegantly, powerfully, and naturally. The second movement seemed appropriately sarcastic, the conductor injecting just the right amount lilt into the contrasting slow and brisk moments before finally pushing the pace to create frenetic tension without ever allowing it to spin out of control; the subsequent release going into the slower, more lyrical third movement would have been ideal if not for some over-exubert members of the crowd breaking the mood. The closing movement had just the right feeling of lightness and zing, with Mr. Dudamel finally unleashing a full orchestral fortissimo in the symphony’s finale.
This was a mostly straightforward performance, with the interpretive choices made being subtle and tasteful. Mr. Dudamel let the music unfold naturally, and generally avoided extreme contrasts of tempos or dynamics. For their part, the LA Phil played with the trademark gusto they’ve gained since The Dude took over the podium, but for the first time while he’s conducted, I also heard the orchestra play with a transparency and edge typical of the Salonen era. It was an interesting and welcome combination.
The orchestra gave their all to Enrico Chapela’s Magnetar, the aforementioned concerto for electric cello — and the work needed the help. Mind you, it had its moments — a little Bernard Hermann here, a touch of Leonard Bernstein there, with the orchestra providing enthusiastic support, some members head-bobbing and toe-tapping along with the jazzier moments. Still, there were too many gimmicks that seemed to go nowhere. Orchestra players’ snapping, clapping, and rubbing their hands together provided more visual than aural interest; distortion pedals utilized by the soloist provided various effects with varying effectiveness; when the strings started churning through unison melodic sections in the last movement, I felt like I was watching one of those cheesy classical cross-over concert for which PBS has an unfortunate affinity. Was it fun? Sure. Was it memorable? Eh, only in passing.
The soloist in Magnetar was the game and talented Johannes Moser. The last time I saw him perform locally was doing a witty and tasteful interpretation of the Haydn Cello Concerto in C with Herbert Blomstedt on the podium — can you say, “polar opposite,” boys and girls?? I can’t fault Mr. Moser for his part in this. He certainly gave it his all, and you have to commend him for the guts to be part of a newly commisioned work. The piece provided a few opportunities for virtuosity in the traditional sense, but not much. Even when the distortion pedals and on-stage Mac Book Pro were set to allow him to sound mostly like a cellist playing a cello, there seemed to be too many layers between cellist and orchestra to connect more than superficially. Before the piece began, Mr. Moser made a point of saying how he was happy that Mr. Chapela wrote music for today, instead of the many other composers who seemingly wrote to be understood 50 or 100 years hence. I, for one, don’t think that these should be two mutually exclusive options.
The concert opened with a rolicking Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams. It closed with the Gavotte from the Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 as an encore.
Solo bows at the end of the evening went first to the four woodwind Principals (David Buck, Arianna Ghez, Lorin Levee, and Whitney Crockett) with the crowd appropriately giving a big cheer. Next up was guest Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, who not only got a loud ovation from the crowd but the notable “foot shuffle of approval” from the members of the orchestra; within days, he was officially offered the position of Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Rounding out the bows were Principal Horn Andrew Bain, the entire cello section, and then the rest of the orchestra, section by section. I wish the maestro would have acknowledged the small ensemble of string principals for their brief chamber music moment near the very end of the Prokofiev 5th; Principal Viola Carrie Dennis sawed away at her instrument so furiously, I wouldn’t have been shocked to see her break a string or more.