A little bit of Esa-Pekka Salonen is better than none at all. And so it turned out this past week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The original plan was that the orchestra’s beloved Conductor Laureate was supposed to be at the Hollywood Bowl for two concerts, beginning Tuesday night when he and pianist Yefim Bronfman (long-time collaborator and friend of the orchestra) were to be the headliners in a program of music from Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Unfortunately, both he and Bronfman cancelled, making his appearance two nights later his only one of the 2014 Hollywood Bowl season.
That Thursday’s concert was billed as an “evening of firsts” because it featured a program of the first symphonies and piano concertos of both Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but there were other notable firsts as well:
- The first time the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laureate conducted at Cahuenga pass since stepping down as the LA Phil’s Music Director
- The first time Maestro Salonen had ever worked with star pianist Yuja Wang
- The first time Tom Hooten, the orchestra’s Principal Trumpet and a star in his own right, performed as a soloist in front of the full orchestra
It all combined to heighten the sense of buzz about this concert, and the performers did not disappoint.
Ms. Wang played with the combination of supreme technical mastery and musical artistry for which she has become rightly famous. In the Shostakovich, she seemed a little more restrained than usual, likely because it was her first time performing the work and she sometimes relied on her sheet music. She took time to let the music breathe and shaped slower passages with a sultriness you don’t usually hear in this concerto, waiting until the fourth movement to push the pace to the seemingly super-human speed she often displays.
Mr. Hooten matched her step for virtuosic step: soulful and almost bluesy one moment, rollicking the next. He displayed a sumptuous tone throughout, combined with a crisp yet smooth articulation in even the most frenetic parts that made his phrasing sound easy. It wasn’t. Mr. Salonen and the rest of the orchestra provided ample support, bringing plenty of their own verve to the piece. It was outstanding.
Ms. Wang was even more impressive in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This time, she played from memory, and it seemed to liberate her. Usually, she sits at the keyboard with an intensity that seems to want to shut the world out. For this concerto, she was notably more extroverted in her demeanor. It looked like she was actually having fun, the Bowl’s video screens even capturing a smile or two as she played. The Prokofiev work is much more dramatic than its Shostakovich counterpart and for the most part, both pianist and conductor seemed willing to let that drama unfold naturally. Again, she waited until the climax to switch on the afterburners, making an already swift flight through the concerto’s finale thoroughly supersonic. The crowd gave a rousing ovation that belied its modest size (attendance was 7,531, well below half the amphitheatre’s capacity).
Mr. Salonen opened the evening with a delightful interpretation of the Prokofiev First Symphony, the composer’s nod to the formal Classical style of Haydn and Mozart’s time. It’s a work he has led frequently with the LA Phil. In the past, he sometimes took sharp turns that seemed hell-bent on revelling in the work’s rhythmic and harmonic angularities. On this night, he was content to take a middle-of-the-road approach, neither rounding off the corners nor emphasizing them.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time not so long ago that Mr. Salonen actively avoided Shostakovich’s symphonies. These days, he can be counted on to make a compelling case for them. He turned to the Shostakovich First Symphony, a work that is entertaining even if it’s far from a masterpiece, as the evening’s capstone, and his take was decidedly gutsy and powerful. He conducted it with the kind of probing wit you’d more readily expect from him in Mahler or Stravinsky.
The LA Phil responded magnificently, just as they do whenever he is on the podium. Their ensemble playing was bold and athletic, yet always with a clarity that allowed inner voices, especially the woodwinds — with gorgeous solos by Cathy Karoly (flute), Burt Hara (clarinet), and Whitney Crockett (bassoon) — to shine through. Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, Principal Cello Robert deMaine, Principal Timpani Joe Pereira, and Mr. Hooten contributed notable solos of their own. Considering the limited rehearsal time the summer season affords, it was impressive.
— Esa-Pekka Salonen (@esapekkasalonen) July 18, 2014
Next week, the orchestra goes from one very familiar conductor to another, as Music Director Gustavo Dudamel takes the podium at the Hollywood Bowl for a couple of weeks.
Random other thoughts:
- While the Shostakovich concerto featuring both Ms. Wang and Mr. Hooten is commonly referred to as the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the work’s formal title describes it as a concerto for “Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra.” (By comparison, Shostakovich’s lone Cello Concerto features a prominent solo horn part, yet that particular brass instrument is not included in the title of the work.) This makes the work a duo concerto, albeit one where the trumpet has many more tacet moments than the piano. I’m always disappointed when orchestras treat the trumpet — and/or the trumpeter — as a bit of an afterthought, just as the LA Phil did with Mr. Hooten. He was not listed in the concert’s online program nor in any of the PR material sent prior to the concert. He was missing from the marquee. The printed program lists his name, but without a detailed bio of him as is offered for Mr. Salonen or Ms. Wang. At least they placed him at the front of the stage, just a few feet behind Ms. Wang’s piano bench rather than asking him to perform from his usual seat in the orchestra.
- Speaking of things missing from the printed program: I noticed that orchestrations and first performances of the works on the program aren’t listed as they have been in the past and as they usually are in the winter season. Similarly, LA Phil recordings of the works on the program (in this case, the Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 under the baton of Andre Previn and the Shostakovich Concerto with Mr. Salonen, Mr. Bronfman, and retired Principal Trumpet Thomas Stevens) are also absent.
- Wardrobe update: Maestro Salonen SHOCKINGLY chose to eschew the summer’s traditional white dinner jacket in favor of the black Nehru jacket he wears when conducting indoors. On the other hand, Mr. Hooten remained in his orchestral uniform throughout instead of taking a soloists prerogative of wearing something different. . . . Oh yeah, Ms. Wang walked onto the stage wearing something predictably attention grabbing to perform the Shostakovich concerto — in this case, a black sequined microdress with 4″ black stilettos. What was less predictable was that she changed outfits during intermission, choosing for the Prokofiev concerto a long, turquoise number that was designed by Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu with cutouts and hip-high slits, though (gasp!) she chose to wear the same shoes from the first half.
- Speaking of appearances, something must be said about bassist David Allen Moore and the fact that he looks pretty much nothing like his official PR photo taken a few years ago. While he’s been nursing a beard for a while now, during the past year it quickly blew right past hipster territory to become whiskers of such volume and majesty that it would make a Civil War general jealous. Bravo, Mr. Moore.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 17, 2014; Hollywood Bowl
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano
Thomas Hooten, trumpet
PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, “Classical”
SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra, Op. 35
PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Op. 10
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10
- Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yuja Wang, and Frank Gehry: courtesy of Yuja Wang’s twitter
- Thomas Hooten: courtesy of tomhooten.com
- Yuja Wang, David Allen Moore, et al: photo by Lawrence K. Ho, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times