Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened their 2012/2013 season with a contemplative work by Ravel, a world premiere by Steven Stucky, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).
In other words, it was Retro Week at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
This is exactly the kind of program which the orchestra famously made common during Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as Music Director. Mr. Salonen had a habit of programming Stravinsky pieces seemingly more often than Beethoven’s, and Mr. Stucky was his in-house composer during his entire 17-year stay in Southern California. In fact, the ties go back even further than that. While Mr. Stucky has had many of his works receive their premieres care of Mr. Salonen and this orchestra, he was first named Composer-in-Residence by Mr. Salonen’s predecesor, André Previn. The orchestra’s relationship with Stravinsky goes back further still, having played many times under the baton of the erstwhile Angeleno composer himself.
Of course, Mr. Stucky hasn’t had any official link to the orchestra since the end of Mr. Salonen’s Music Directorship, and with The Rite of Spring and the LA Phil having been indelibly linked to Mr. Salonen for some time now, it was rather wise for Mr. Dudamel to give this showpiece a break for the past three years. Putting a program like this together to start his fourth season with the orchestra is no small gesture for Mr. Dudamel, and I made a point of seeing and hearing it twice: Friday’s opening night performance, and the close-out on Sunday afternoon.
So how did this very Salonen-like program come across in Mr. Dudamel’s hands? In a word: magnificently.
There were certainly many aspects to the orchestra’s sound and approach at this weekend’s performances that would be easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Salonen’s take on The Rite (or Sacre, if you prefer) . Why mess with a very good thing?
In general, Mr. Dudamel didn’t, building upon the version these players know so well instead of tearing it down and trying to start from scratch. This weekend’s performances had little in common with the over-heated recording he made of the same work with his Simon Bolivar Symphony.
That said, he has imbued the strings with an extra richness and depth during his tenure while still allowing them to keep their trademark sheen; he has hired many new players including three new principal brass players and, most notably for this work, a new Principal Bassoon: the brilliant Whitney Crockett. Make no mistake — this is now Mr. Dudamel’s orchestra, and this was his Rite of Spring.
Differences between the interpretation of current and past Music Directors abounded in the details. This time around, textures were a little beefier throughout. Big moments were a bit more raucous, while quieter moments — most notably during the opening sections of Part II — sounded more mystical and dramatic than they ever had before. There was still plenty of snap and precision left over from the Salonen days, but where the piece used to have a machine-like menace, it now had more of an organically sinister quality: Mr. Salonen’s Sacre is more Decepticon, while Mr. Dudamel’s is more Sith, each one being deliciously scary in its own special way.
The orchestra itself sounded spectacular, particularly on Sunday. Veterans, newcomers, and guests all combined to give Mr. Dudamel everything he asked for with gusto.
Mr. Stucky’s new, un-numbered Symphony was a stellar prelude to Stravinsky’s 100-year old masterpiece, and is an exquisite work in its own rite . . . er, right. It evokes Sacre with an exposed opening for a double-reed instrument — in this case, Marion Arthur Kuszyk’s excellent oboe — before getting passed to the other woodwinds over murmurs by strings, eventually blooming in different directions. It is dramatic and lovely, with waves of sound pouring over you one moment and intricate figurations appearing the next. After chunks of “turmoil and anguish” (as Mr. Stucky describes it in his program notes), the work ends on an eerily hopeful note. Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra gave it a compelling reading, and the response from the audience was enthusiastic. This is good stuff that deserves to be heard over and over. It gets a repeat playing in November by the New York Philharmonic, the work’s co-commissioner — head to Manhattan after Thanksgiving, if you can.
The concert began with the gossamer sounds of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) and yet another exposed opening, this one tenderly played by Principal Horn Andrew Bain. It was a touching curtain raiser that perfectly set up the two “big” works on the program.
All in all, it was an auspicious start to the new season. Bring on the rest of it.
Random other thoughts:
- Friday’s opening night concert was very good, but Sunday’s was noticeably better. Whatever opening night jitters and/or small bits of rust left over from the summer at the Bowl that were evident Friday night were gone on Sunday, replaced with the added confidence one would expect after having performed it multiple times. In fact, Sunday was the best concert I’ve ever heard Mr. Dudamel and the LA Phil have together.
- The Friday audience gave Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra five rounds of applause. On Sunday, the curtain calls were fewer but louder.
- On both days, Mr. Crockett received an enthusiastic ovation when given his solo bows, though Principal Timpanist Joe Pereira got the biggest cheers both nights.
- Playing guest Principal Cello with the orchestra was Julie Albers, one of the two finalists vying for the full-time gig.
- Among the musical luminaries present Sunday was composer John Williams.
- The LA Phil premieres of the two older works on the program both happened to be conducted by Eugene Goosens: the Ravel in 1927, the Stravinsky in 1928. Too bad there aren’t recordings readily available for those two performances
- In February and March, Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra perform another pair of works at WDCH that have been identified with Mr. Salonen — Debussy’s La mer and The Firebird by Stravinsky — before taking them (and The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams) on tour to London, Lucerne, Paris, and New York.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: September 28 and 30, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)
Stucky: Symphony (World Premiere)
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Photo credit: Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging (courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic)