I had been really looking forward to these concerts. It was supposed to feature two masterful Spaniards in a night featuring a good chunk of Spanish music. Unfortunately, that went by the wayside as Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor and friend of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, cancelled for health reasons. Pepe Romero, the distinguished guitarist (not to mention USC Thornton School professor and Spanish Knight in the order of Queen Isabella), was still scheduled to perform the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. But who to conduct the program?
I poked a little fun at the Pacific Symphony when they puffed that the “renowned conductor Christoph König” would be joining them this season. Mind you, I didn’t have any problem with the conductor himself, but to call him “renowned” was (and still is) a bit of stretch. As it turned out, his appearances in Orange County this past February turned out to be well received (Tim Mangan’s review HERE). So it was with great interest that I saw that the young German would be stepping into the breach for Mr. Frühbeck, umlaut for umlaut, for four concerts with the LA Phil: three at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and — as irony, shrewd decision-making, and/or just damn luck would have it — one concert back at the site of his first local success, Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County.
So, despite the new conductor and slight change in the program, I stuck with my plan and went to the concert anyway. Good move. Mr. Romero was the star, but Mr. König acquitted himself rather nicely too, thank you very much.
Mr. Romero’s elegant guitar playing proved to be the highlight of the day. His bright, steely sound cut through the reduced orchestra without any need to plug into an amplifier (unlike Eliot Fisk’s 2005 rendition), allowing the full range of timbres he created and the details of his improvisatory figurations to be heard clearly. The outer movements were cheerful, while the famous second movement was full of drama, like an unexpected breeze that causes the hair on your arms to stand on end. The whole thing was stunning. You couldn’t ask for much more, but Mr. Romero indulged us all anyway, playing Fantasia Cubana by his father, Celedonio Romero, as a lively encore.
Mr. König led an appropriately deferential accompaniment, and even in those parts of the second movement where the orchestra gets to make a grand statement or two, things never got overblown. Carolyn Hove’s English horn solos were a lovely shade of moody, and she was given a warm ovation from crowd and orchestra alike when she was given a bow by the conductor.
For the rest of the concert, Mr. König was much more extroverted. He is an animated conductor, full of big physical gestures — his movements were often jerky, though sometimes he would use a back-and-forth move that couldn’t help but remind me of the “Happy Hands Club” from Napoleon Dynamite. More than anything, he was full of energy and smiles, seeming to be having a good time overall. That energy and joy showed up in the music.
The Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66 by Dvorak that opened the concert (in place of the Turina’s Danzas fantasticas) is a lively piece, loaded with all kinds of fun little moments for any conductor to highlight, and Mr. König pushed it along nicely, slowing down every so often to enjoy the scenery. It was pleasant, and I’m not sure the piece could be much more than that.
His approach to the Brahms Symphony No. 2 was much of the same, just on a bigger scale. His rendering was as athletic a performance of this symphony as I’ve ever heard. He managed to bring out enough detail, especially in the third movement, without dawdling. There certainly didn’t seem to be any attempts at profundity, which was fine by me (see below).
The LA Phil responded alertly, playing with precision and balance despite their lack of experience with this conductor. The strings, in particular, sounded rather bright and chipper, seeming to match the disposition of the gentleman in front of them waving the baton. The rest of the orchestra was equally resplendent, and as is often the case, Principal Oboe Ariana Ghez was given the first solo bow.
The crowd gave conductor and orchestra a very big ovation, larger even than the one given the soloist in the first half. I stayed in my seat as I applauded, but I was very much in the minority. Still, I’d say that this was an impressive debut by Mr. König, especially given the circumstances. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see him return to lead this orchestra again, this time on purpose and with a little more advanced warning.
Random other thoughts:
- I’ve gone on the record many times as not being a huge fan of the majority of Brahms’s music, and usually the amount of attempted profundity evident in Brahms is directly proportional to my chances of finding said Brahms work profoundly dull; one of the reasons the Brahms 2nd is a piece I’ll search out is because it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of repetitive musical pontificating that much Brahms (and most of Bruckner and Wagner) does. If I want to probe the deepest musical depths, I’d prefer to do it with Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich, or even some Lutoslawski.
- The last time I saw a young conductor lead the LA Phil in the Brahms 2nd as part of his debut with the orchestra, it didn’t go nearly as well. It was the mid-90’s and the guy was Christian Thielemann. At the time, he was one of the Next Big Things, and his appearance locally was hailed as a coup. He was even given two weeks of programs, with the Brahms 2nd being the final work of the second week. It turned out to be as uneven a performance of the work as I could imagine: there was much nuance, with an instrument here or a secondary phrase there that I hadn’t noticed before; however, it was also haphazard and messy, and I wondered whether those details came out because of sheer happenstance. His baton technique was, at its best, amorphous enough to make Valery Gergiev’s constantly fluttering hands seem razor-sharp and Salonen-like in comparison. Not surprisingly, the orchestra played with little precision and ensemble, and by the 4th movement of the symphony, they looked as disinterested and pissed-off as I think I’ve ever seen them while on stage. On the way to my car, I ran into one orchestral musician whom I won’t name (since retired), and I thanked him for the concert and asked him what he thought of the conductor. It wasn’t the first time I’d bumped into him in the parking garage, and he usually was quite jovial — this time, not so much. He just went off on the conductor, saying a number of things which I won’t/shouldn’t repeat, but of all the criticisms and complaints, the most damning one for my money was, “He’s just up there for himself.” Not sure if the sentiment was shared by the whole orchestra, but Mr. Thielemann hasn’t stood in front of the LA Phil again.
- I find the triangle to be the most ardent of percussion instruments used in the orchestra. It shouldn’t seem like it belongs, but when it shows up in music, you can’t imagine it any other way. It works in both classical and popular music, and if you don’t believe me, watch footage of the Foo Fighters concert at Wembley Stadium which features a prominent triangle solo played because it was demanded by 80,000+ fans screaming “Tri-an-gle! Tri-an-gle! Tri-an-gle!” (Okay, maybe rent it because it’s an awesome rock concert and not just for the triangle). The Dvorak work that opened the program featured just enough triangle to make both me and Mrs. CKDH chuckle in the middle of the piece. We’ve been married long enough for me to know that both she and I wanted to start our own chant of “Tri-an-gle! Tri-an-gle! . .” right there in WDCH.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: April 27, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Christoph König, conductor
Pepe Romero, guitar
Dvorák: Scherzo Capriccioso
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Brahms: Symphony No. 2
- Pepe Romero: Trace Haskins, http://www.peperomero.com
- Christoph König: http://www.christophkoenig.at