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Avoiding “conductor porn”: Gaffigan shakes things up with the LA Phil

James GaffiganThe ten-week parade of guest conductors at the Los Angeles Philharmonic has begun.  First in line:  James Gaffigan, the American-born Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony and previous right hand man to Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco and Franz Welser-Möst in Cleveland.

His program featured one favorite, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Simon Trpčeski as soloist, sandwiched between two less commonly played works:  Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront and the Third Symphony of Prokofiev.  Besides consciously avoiding a tried-and-true program of big concert hall staples like Mahler or Bruckner that would easily enable him to make a grand statement — “conductor porn,” as Mr. Gaffigan hilariously referred to it later — all three works were based on music that was originally written for a different purpose.  And as if that weren’t enough to emphasize that this was not your typical concert (or maybe to help keep butts in seats after intermission ), he reversed the typical order of the pieces:   the Prokofiev symphony first, the second half opened with the concerto-like Rachmaninoff work, and ending with the single movement Bernstein piece.

At last night’s concert, he mostly pulled it off, leading informed readings of all the pieces on the program.  He conducted with a clear beat and minimum fussiness.  The LA Phil responded with solid, often spectacular, playing.

On the Waterfront came across best.  The composer was famously dissatisfied with the way his music was used in the film and how the final mix sounded; he distanced himself from the film score, never wrote another note for the movies, and pieced together the symphonic suite to give his composition an alternate life in the concert hall.  Mr. Gaffigan led a bracing account, deftly balancing the harsher moments with the softer ones and harnessing the power of the orchestra at optimum times.

The LA Phil has always had a strong connection to Bernstein’s music, and once again, they performed the suite like it was effortless.  They played the angular, jazzy rhythms with snap while expertly caressing the sweeter moments.  There were a plethora of notable individual contributions.  After a less-than-pristine start, Andrew Bain gave achingly plangent horn solos of the main theme, while Catherine Ransom Karoly did beautiful work with the secondary love theme.  James Rotter repeatedly offered nicely angst-ridden saxophone solos throughout.  Tom Hooten (trumpet) and Jim Miller (trombone) had many impressive moments, especially given the rapid mute changes Bernstein requires.   Joe Pereira and Nick Stoup played the important timpani parts with precision and nuance.

The LA Phil is also no stranger to Prokofiev in general, but his Third Symphony has been largely ignored by the orchestra.  Their first performance of it was not until 1976 (under the baton of Sidney Harth, former Principal Concertmaster and Assistant Conductor), and they haven’t touched it during a subscription season since 1982.  After hearing it for the first time last night, it’s a toss-up on whether or not that neglect is justified.

On one hand, it’s an interesting work, full of energetic music and inventive orchestration.  Prokofiev pieced it together from chunks of his opera, The Fiery Angel, which had yet to be produced.  Why did he have difficulty finding someone to stage it?  A big reason is the controversial libretto, based on Valery Bryusov’s novel.  The story centers around a teenage girl lusting after an angel, offering her virginity to the first noblemen she meets because she thinks he’s the angel in human form, and doing assorted other mayhem before eventually being burned at the stake; along the way there’s murder, witchcraft, and a bunch of demon-possessed nuns having an orgy (seriously).  While the symphony utilizes the score, it’s not meant to follow the narrative, and indeed, Prokofiev uses the music out-of-order.  The result is strange, often terrifying, and occasionally even serene, and offered the orchestra another opportunity to show off its impressive skill set.

Yet while there’s nothing particularly wrong with the music moment to moment, there’s nothing enthralling about the entire symphony either.  It comes across — and is best enjoyed — as a collection of scary-sounding fragments instead of a cohesive multi-movement work .  Maybe it was just Mr. Gaffigan’s interpretation.  While the conductor looked engaged, he was not as animated and seemed less willing to throw himself into this symphony as completely as he was during the Bernstein despite both works having equally dramatic and splashy scores.  Perhaps a different conductor would be more persuasive with it.

Simon TrpceskiThe centerpiece of the evening was Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff’s famous set of variations on the violin virtuoso’s 24th Caprice.  Mr. Trpčeski has become a regular visitor to Disney Hall, and with his arsenal of technical skills and dry wit, it’s not hard to see why.  His approach to the Rhapsody on this evening was lyrical but largely unsentimental, personalized mainly by varying tone and timbre rather than employing rubato.  Mr. Gaffigan and the orchestra followed suit, emphasizing clarity throughout, so much so that the one time they gave a thoroughly lush sound (during the climax of the iconic 18th variation), it was almost out-of-place.  Listeners who wanted a more overtly romantic Rhapsody would likely have been disappointed, but judging by the extensive cheers and standing ovation he received from the audience, those feeling that way were in the minority.

Random other thoughts:

  • The first LA Phil performance of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was in 1942, featuring Rachmaninoff himself at the keyboard and Bruno Walter conducting.  Both musicians were Beverly Hills residents at the time.
  • This was the second concert in the new, four-concert “Inside the Music” series hosted by Brian Lauritzen.  Among the highlights was a virtuoso performance of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin by Nathan Cole, the LA Phil’s First Associate Concertmaster, and a discussion with film music expert John Burlingame during the pre-concert lecture.  Mr. Gaffigan’s wonderful “conductor porn” comment came during the post-concert Q&A with Messrs. Lauritzen and Trpčeski.
  • I previously said that last Sunday’s concert would be bassist John Schiavo’s final one before retiring from the orchestra; I based this on comments Deborah Borda (LA Phil President and CEO) made from the stage.  It turns out that Mr. Schiavo won’t retire until the end of next weekend’s concerts.

December 12, 2014:  Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall

James Gaffigan, conductor

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Bernstein: Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront

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Photo credits:

  • James Gaffigan:  courtesy of Festival de Saint-Denis
  • Simon Trpčeski:  Simon Fowler
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