A program of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Prokofiev may still be considered adventurous in some concert halls, but for many years, it was the norm at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The 20th Century French and Russian composers seemed to turn up on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s programs as often (if not more so) than Mozart, Brahms, or Strauss. Alas, the orchestra’s current music director, Gustavo Dudamel, has had a much stronger penchant for Austro-Germanic works during his tenure up to now, so this type of programming has been increasingly left to guest conductors.
After nearly two months of performing Mahler, it was time for the LA Phil to cleanse our collective orchestral palate with a very different kind of program. On hand to do the purification was Charles Dutoit, one of the handful of eminence gris to whom the orchestra has been regularly turning over their podium over the past decade. The Swiss conductor’s aristocratic demeanor and strong reputation in this repertoire made him an ideal fit to lead the orchestra in this change-of-pace program on their first weekend back from their Venezuelan excursion. On Saturday night, he and the LA Phil did not disappoint.
The evening opened with a straight-forward account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Mr. Dutoit led a balanced approach, allowing the work’s contrasting tempos and dynamics to play out naturally without emphasizing the angularities in the music. The LA Phil’s woodwinds and brass seemed a little unsettled initially, but they quickly got into a groove and played with the refinement, purity, and precision for which they gained the reputation as premiere interpreters of Stravinsky’s work. Cathy Karoly’s beautiful alto flute was particuarly noteworthy.
There was no hint of any unsettledness as the orchestra played La Mer, Debussy’s iconic symphonic “sketches.” From the moment the basses and timpani began their low rumble and the harps began to pluck their echoed two-note motif through to the end of the third movement, the orchestra played with a confident, flowing ease. The strings were taut and shimmering, woodwinds tossed phrases back and forth among themselves seemlessly, and the brass played with vibrancy without ever overpowering. Mr. Dutoit created a variety of textures and timbres, emphasizing unexpected combinations of instruments while maintaining transparency. Tempos were brisk without ever feeling rushed.
Mr. Dutoit created his own eight-part suite from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. This has long been a work that the orchestra has played exceedingly well; Eric Leinsdorf conducted a marvelous direct-to-disc recording, and Esa-Pekka Salonen memorably used an intense, warp-speed account of “Death of Tybalt” as an encore during one of the LA Phil’s tours. Mr. Dutoit’s account was balanced, avoiding extremes and actually sounding like somebody could dance to it. Moreover, it was lush, energetic, and tender, as appropriate.
The whole evening was refreshing and “colorific” (if you’ll forgive the term). It was quintessential Dutoit, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic played for him with its characteristic virtuosity. David Buck (flute), Ariana Ghez (oboe), and Jim Wilt (trumpet) had outstanding solo moments in both La Mer and Romeo and Juliet; Michele Zukovsky (clarinet) and James Rotter (saxophone) also shined in the Prokofiev. Props also go out to the entire cello section for particularly noteworthy playing.
Random other thoughts:
- There was no mention from the stage, nor was there any insert in the program, regarding the sad loss of Principal Clarinet, Lorin Levee, who passed away earlier in the week. David Howard played first clarinet in the opening half of the program.
- Mr. Dutoit chose to reinsert the third movement fanfare in La Mer that Debussy had originally written but subsequently deleted.
- In past years, the printed program included a listing LA Phil recordings of the works to be played that particular evening. This season, they seem to only do it for recordings conducted by Mr. Dudamel. One example: during the Mahler Project, the orchestra listed their release of Mahler’s First Symphony with Mr. Dudamel, but declined to mention their recordings of “Songs of a Wayfarer” with Zubin Mehta and Marilyn Horne or the Fourth Symphony with Mr. Salonen and Barbara Hendricks. The orchestra has recorded La Mer at least four times (twice with Mr. Salonen, once with Mr. Leinsdorf, and once with Carlo Maria Giulini) and Romeo and Juliet at least twice (by Mr. Salonen in addition to the aforementioned Leinsdorf recording). Were any of these listed in this past weekend’s program? Nope.
- After many seasons of conducting various French and Russian works, Mr. Dutoit returns next season with a decidedly Central European evening of Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Strauss. And since turnabout is fairplay, Mr. Dudamel finally gets around to conducting — and even touring — some Debussy and Stravinsky of his own, including a program with La Mer and Firebird.
- Nathan Cole sat in the concertmaster’s chair for the evening — given Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s upcoming solo turn in the West Coast premiere of the Matheson Violin Concerto, this was not surprising.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: February 25, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Charles Dutoit, conductor
STRAVINSKY: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
DEBUSSY: La Mer
PROKOFIEV: Suite from Romeo and Juliet
Photo courtesy of Sagra Musicale Malatestiana