I almost always go to classical music concerts because I feel I must see/hear something on the program: a certain composer or his work, a soloist, maybe even a conductor. Other times it’s because I’m curious about a world premiere of a new work or a performer I’ve never heard before. This past Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall was the rare exception: a perfectly fine program about which there wasn’t really anything I craved or was curious, a concert I probably wouldn’t have attended had it not been included in my subscription, with the “life and death” overtones of the programming not necessarily adding to the appeal. No matter. The philosophically tinged program turned out to be quite enjoyable, and in the end I’m glad I went.
The main thing keeping me from switching out: Richard Goode. He has been a fairly regular visitor to the Music Center over the years, both in recital and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I realized that the last time I saw him play was in the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Clearly, I was way overdue. It’s a special treat to hear him play Mozart, in this case the introspective and occasionally brooding Piano Concerto No. 20 in d minor.
You pretty much know what you’re going to get when you see Mr. Goode in the classical repertoire: aristocratic playing of impeccable taste, detail, and subtlety; probing and never flighty. Sunday afternoon’s performance offered no surprises, just wonderful playing. His Mozart was precise without ever being cold or fragile. It drew you in. The stellar acoustics of WDCH allowed for his approach to work wonders; it was as if he was playing in your living room for you — and 2,000 of your friends and neighbors just happened to be there too. It wasn’t until the 3rd movement Rondo did he play anywhere near forte, and even at his most expressive in that movement’s short cadenza, his tone remained crisp and his sound never grew out of proportion to the rest of the performance. It was a tour de force of compact, nuanced virtuosity. When it was all done, he gave a generous encore of the Sarabande from Bach’s B-flat Partita, again reveling in the details while managing to broaden the soundscape.
Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra provided just the right amount of oomph to the proceedings, providing a little extra sturm und drang without ever overpowering the soloist. Still, history has shown that Mr. Dudamel prefers his Mozart to be a bit more full-throated than Mr. Goode’s take on Sunday, and I got the sense that some of the tension came from Mr. Dudamel wanting to open it up a bit more but deciding to hold back some in deference to the distinguished soloist. Whatever the source, that tension worked perfectly, and the orchestra played beautifully.
The Mozart piano concerto certainly has no thematic program per se, but as Herbert Glass’s program notes pointed out, it’s minor key and agitated nature made it a favorite of romantics. As such, it worked well as the centerpiece of the concert between two more overtly programmatic pieces, György Kurtág’s Grabstein für Stephan and Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.
I’m not going to claim to be a connoisseur of the music of Richard Strauss. To be perfectly honest, it sits just a notch above Bruckner and a few ticks above Brahms in the “music I generally try to avoid paying money to see” category. It’s not that I don’t like it, I just don’t crave it; much like 70’s rock, I’m almost never going to pull out a CD to listen to it, but when it comes along, I’m fine that it did. Among Strauss’s tone poems, Zarathustra and Eine Alpensinfonie represent the ones I like best: expressive and painterly without becoming bombastic (or at least too bombastic). The difference between them for me is that whereas I love following the programmatic climb up and down the mountaintop in Alpensinfonie, I’d just assume avoid all the Nietzchean clap-trap in Zarathustra and simply concentrate on the music. So it was on Sunday, with me just sitting back and reveling in the sound of the LA Phil .
This is music that begs to played big, and Mr. Dudamel certainly took advantage of every opportunity afforded to him to do so without stretching things out of proportion. As one would expect, the orchestra gave it their considerable all, and the aural textures were rich without ever becoming too thick or gloppy. You gotta love hearing the WDCH organ with the orchestra. Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour played his many solo lines with panache, and received a huge ovation from the crowd. Jim Wilt, playing first trumpet, also got a well deserved solo bow. The brass section overall sounded in fine form, though perhaps lacking just a hint of unity and punch they often achieve in other performances; given the many new and substitute players throughout the brass ranks, they should be commended for the amount they actually did gel.
The concert began with György Kurtág’s Grabstein für Stephan (Gravestone for Stephan), written as an elegy for the singer Stephan Stein. Here, Mr. Dudamel lead a bracing performance that showed off the range of both orchestra and concert hall. Starting with barely audible guitar strumming that grew in small tiers, and leading up to wind chorales and ear-piercing whistles (“played” as they were by the immensely overqualified Michele Zukovsky, Cathy Karoly, and Michele Grego), Mr. Dudamel showed that his handle on contemporary work extends beyond the easily digestible realm of John Adams or the Latin American composers with whom he is more readily associated. This was thorny, even unpleasant, music that caused those sitting in front of me to squirm noticeably and plug their ears at times; yet in the end, even these audience members applauded enthusiastically. Kurtág specifically calls for players to be spread throughout the performance space to create “surprises;” once again, WDCH provided an ideal setting, with musicians strewn throughout the hall; despite considerable craning of the neck, I couldn’t locate all of them.
Random additional thoughts:
- Last week’s overly-exhuberant crowd was replaced by a less clap-happy if more cough-filled crowd. Given the 80-degree day outside, it was a bit surprising to hear the sheer number of full-throated hacks sounding out seemingly unmuffled at all the quietest moments in the concert.
- Cellist Susan Babini was sitting as guest principal for the concert. She is the latest candidate to be playing a trial for the open Associate Principal position. At the end of the concert, a number of string players made a point of walking over to her and shaking her hand.
- Got a glimpse of Frank Gehry walking through WDCH. This certainly is not unusual in and of itself. What was interesting this time was watching him stride through the first floor, past the cafe, and through some unmarked doors to which I had never previously paid attention. I guess when you design the building, you know all the good shortcuts to your parking spot.
- Reviews of different concerts from the same program by Mark Swed (HERE) and Bob Thomas (HERE)
- The Pacific Symphony also performed Zarathustra recently, and even paired it with a Mozart piano concerto (this time popular 21st with Jeremy Denk) among a few other interesting pieces. Tim Mangan reviewed that concert for The Orange County Register HERE.
Photo credit: Michael Wilson