Despite my tardiness, I’ve still been wanting to write about last month’s Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of the Mahler 5th Symphony. Sure, at least three loyal readers have been prodding me in public and private to do so. On top of that, the concert featured Daniel Harding, a conductor who hasn’t made a visit to Southern California in a while, and Renaud Capuçon, a dashing soloist doing a beautiful job with the Korngold Violin Concerto. The orchestra sounded quite good, and Mr. Harding’s interpretations were solid . . . but to quote a famous phrase, “Wait, there’s more!!”
The big reason it’s stayed on my mind — and the minds of many others I’ve talked to over the past few weeks — is that it served as a definitive concert early in this young season for the orchestra’s evolving brass section and, most especially, its three new principals: Andrew Bain (horn), who joined the orchestra last year; Thomas Hooten (trumpet), who played a number of concerts last season as guest principal and officially took over the job this September; and Nitzan Haroz (trombone), who began his tenure in August at the Hollywood Bowl.
Yeah, there have been other concerts earlier in the year that used a lot of brass (e.g. The Rite of Spring, Sibelius 2nd, to name just two), but a Mahler symphony is a different animal, and the Mahler 5th in particular has some gnarly solos for trumpet and horn that are hallmarks for those instruments’ repertoire.
On the night I attended, the LA Phil brass kicked some Mahler 5 butt, playing with fierce power, solid blend, and a broad range of colors and timbres. The principals in particular were outstanding.
The sound that Mr. Hooten created in the iconic first movement trumpet part was glorious, spinning and soaring with ominous majesty. Mr. Bain played what I can easily describe as the best rendering of the third movement horn obbligato I’ve had the pleasure to experience in person; it was truly breathtaking, loaded with verve and nuance, causing many around me to whisper, “Wow!” when the movement was done, and earning him the biggest ovation of the evening. Mr. Haroz may not have had a big solo moment in this particular symphony, but there was still ample opportunity to appreciate his bold yet warm tone. (A few weeks later, he got a solo turn in Ravel’s Bolero, which he absolutely knocked out of the park).
Individually, Messrs. Hooten, Haroz, and Bain are each wonderful additions to the orchestra. Taken together, they are truly spectacular, collectively bringing an extra level of sizzle to the brass sound that I haven’t heard since the formidable Thomas Stevens, Ralph Sauer, and John Cerminaro sat in their respective chairs.
I mean no disrespect to the many excellent musicians who have been in those positions between that time, each of whom played with distinction. But after hearing another rousing performance this past weekend in the Shostakovich 10th, I know that I am not imagining things: the LA Phil’s brass section has a lil’ somethin’-somethin’ goin’ on now that it didn’t have as recently as a year or two ago.
Some have suggested to me that it is a “revitalized” brass section, or that they are experiencing a “renaissance.” I wouldn’t go that far; I think they’ve always sounded excellent, and both of those terms in quotes make it sound like there was a deficiency that is now getting fixed. While I’d agree that the brass as a whole was not as consistently top-notch as they have been so far this season, I’m guessing that a good chunk of this is due to turnover in the sections. Only a few of players remain from when the orchestra first moved into Walt Disney Concert Hall: Brian Drake (Third Horn), Jim Wilt (Associate Principal Trumpet), Jim Miller (Associate Principal Trombone), Herbert “Sonny” Ausman (Second Trombone), and Norman Pearson (Tuba). (Horn player Elizabeth Cook-Shen remains on the official roster, but has not played regularly with the orchestra for quite a few years).
Perhaps seating arrangement also has something to do with it. Going back to the orchestra’s residency at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through the beginning of the season, the trumpets typically sat immediately in front of the trombones. At some point over the past month or so, the seating arrangement changed so that now those two sections are in a single line abreast of each other, with the two principals sitting next to each other in the middle of the row.
Maybe even the crystalline acoustics of Disney Hall have played a part. A few years ago, Jim Wilt wrote the following comment on Tim Mangan’s original blog at OCRegister.com:
“The ‘new brass sections’ are playing in a very different hall than the old one. While it represents a huge improvement over the DCP, the design parameters were very different than those of conventional halls. Disney favors detail and clarity over warmth and blend, which reflects the requirements of contemporary music, a huge part of what we do in LA. In other words, we’re not getting a lot of help.”
Since then, the hall certainly hasn’t changed, but many of the players have and the principals certainly have, and the biggest change in the past couple of years is the change in the three new principals . . . draw your own conclusions if you don’t believe mine.
I say all of this with the full knowledge that they are human, and humans — even bad-ass principal brass players — sometimes make mistakes. In the performance I attended, Mr. Hooten had a glitch mid-way through the first movement, not what I’d call a glaring miscue but more than a simple clam; that said, it certainly didn’t take away from the stellar quality of his sound or overall musicianship. One mistake doesn’t necessarily ruin a performance, and it definitely didn’t for me on this occasion. For the record, I spoke to a few people who attended the other two performances that weekend, and they told me that both Mr. Hooten and Mr. Bain played absolutely flawlessly.
One final thought: I really, REALLY, hope that this crew stays together. Whether they do or not remains to be seen, the tenure process being what it is and especially with a no-longer-bankrupt Philadelphia Orchestra likely wanting to get Mr. Haroz back into their ranks. But if they do stay together, it is frighteningly good to think how impressive the brass will sound in a few years, once the principals and other newer section players really get a chance to gel. One can dream and pray. In the meantime, I’m going to sit back and revel in the brass sound every chance I get.
Random other thoughts:
- Playing as acting Fourth Horn this season is Julie Thayer, on leave from the same position with the Houston Symphony. Her husband happens to be Jeff Thayer, Concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony.
- If one were to scour the internet and read opinions from other orchestra musicians around the English-speaking world about Mr. Harding, you’d find two fairly distinct camps: one who loves him and thinks he’s great, and another who hates him and thinks he’s a pompous ass (just paraphrasing, mind you). I’m guessing here, but my spider senses tell me that this bimodal distribution is the reason (a) why he got invited to conduct the LA Phil this year, and (b) why it took so long for that to happen since the last time he did so. It’ll be interesting to see if/when he makes his next appearance with the orchestra.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: October 27, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Daniel Harding, conductor
Renaud Capuçon, violin
Korngold: Violin Concerto
Mahler: Symphony No. 5