The Hollywood Bowl is often a place for conductors and soloists to make their Los Angeles Philharmonic debuts. It’s a bit of trial by fire — if you can make a strong impression under the duress of limited rehearsal time and less-than-ideal performing conditions, then you might get invited for a gig downtown for the “regular” season.
Conductors seem to have the higher risk/reward profile in this environment. Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Rattle are just two conductors who had noteworthy starts to their relationship with the LA Phil at Cahuenga Pass. The less heralded Juraj Valčuha acquitted himself well enough in a one-night Hollywood Bowl stint in 2009 to get invited back to work with the orchestra and Yefim Bronfman in 2011. In contrast, Kirill Karabits led two concerts during the same 2009 summer season and hasn’t been seen or heard with the local band since then.
Of the two, Mr. Matsuev has perhaps the more notable pedigree, having won the 1998 Tchaikovsky competition. The Siberian pianist has a Samwise Gamgee kind of look to him, and his playing matches the character’s persona: thick, loud, and straight-forward, capable of subtlety but rarely employing it. This approach worked better in the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1, as well as for the “Russian Dance” of Stravinsky’s solo piano transcription of Three Movements from Petrushka. Even though his pounding didn’t always come with the cleanest sound, you had to be impressed with his ability to play fistfuls of chords with both speed and power; however, when “The Shrovtide Fair” became mostly a set of variations on a theme of fortissimo, the whole experience grew tiresome. Perhaps he was adapting to his acoustical environment — I’m guessing he wasn’t.
As if twelve minutes of solo piano exhibition following a concerto wasn’t quite enough, Mr. Matsuev decided to sit down for an encore: his own solo piano arrangement of “Largo al factotum,” the iconic baritone aria from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was an old-school bit of virtuoso showmanship, not to mention being the best demonstration of the pianist’s entire skill set: as it turned out, he actually could play with a broad range of color and textures.
It was also extremely self-indulgent. The LA Phil musicians applauded, tapped their bows, and shuffled their feet in support of the pianist after the concerto, and seemed to hold steady as they patiently sat through the two Petrushka movements as quiet spectators. Their collective patience seemed to be wearing thin during the four- to five-minutes of Rossini, and you could tell that many were more than ready to head off stage as soon as he was done.
Mr. Urbański led the orchestra in nice support of Mr. Matsuev during the Prokofiev concerto, but he didn’t really have a chance to make a notable impression of his own until he conducted the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony after intermission. . . . Well, on second thought, that’s not quite true. The fact that the 29-year old Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony chose to conduct the Shosty 10 instead of a more common Bowl-friendly warhorse, plus play Stravinsky’s arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, showed me that had some interesting, even slightly daring, programming sensibilities. That was a good sign.
Even before his first downbeat, Mr. Urbański gave the impression of a very post-modern young conductor. He eschewed the Bowl’s traditional white dinner jacket in favor of a skinny black suit with matching skinny black tie and contrasting white shirt. He may have been mistaken for fronting a two-tone ska band if not for his trademark Depeche-Mode-reminiscent spiky hair cut. On the podium, his right hand carved out broad, sweeping lines with a longer than average baton, while his left hand utilized a whole host of gestures your average Las Vegas magician might recognize:
- A “you are getting very sleepy” wave of the palm
- The “watch me pull a rabbit right out of the musicians”
- The slow rising palm that makes you imagine he’s trying to levitate a hypnotized assistant
- And my personal favorite, a cue that looked like he was sprinkling a dash of pixie dust onto whatever orchestral section he was signaling towards.
You’d hope that with all the visual attributes in place, the actual performance would be good. Generally speaking, it was. For starters, the whole orchestra sounded very good — as good as it has all summer, as a matter of fact. Whitney Crockett (Principal Bassoon) and Michele Zukovsky (Principal Clarinet) had particularly awesome nights along with the entire woodwind section. To the extent that Mr. Urbański kept things moving along and didn’t get in the way of the orchestra, he should be praised.
At the same time, one wished for something more. Mr. Urbański’s take on the Shostakovich Tenth was nicely executed if not particularly distinctive. It sounded smooth and sleek, but could have benefited from more bite and tension throughout. The compact second movement was plenty fast, but curiously seemed to lack fire, like a Prius that is going 100 mph and still doesn’t feel very exciting. Perhaps he was adapting to the circumstances, not trying to overreach in interpretive detail with relatively little rehearsal time — I’d be willing to believe that.
Given his good taste in programming, I’d be interested to see what he could do at Disney Hall. We’ll see if the powers-that-be at the LA Phil will give him the chance.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: Sept 4, 2012; Hollywood Bowl
Krzysztof Urbański, conductor
Denis Matsuev, piano
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky: “Russian Dance” and “The Shrovtide Fair” from Petrushka (solo piano)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10