With the season-opening gala in the rear view mirror, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel decided to kick-off their regular subscription concerts with a tried-and-true formula: Beethoven, more Beethoven, and a newish work by a living composer inspired by Beethoven.
Such concerts usually attract a full house, but they can also be dangerous affairs. Often, one of two things happens:
- The new composition falls flat and the contemporary composer sets him/herself up for an unflattering juxtaposition by consciously cribbing from the master, and the listeners are reminded why Beethoven gets played so much: because it’s so damn good.
- Everyone gets excited about the new composition, and lots of energy gets put into its preparation and performance, leading to a premiere that feels like a breath of fresh air; meanwhile, not enough creative energy is spent on the accompanying Beethoven work, and the result ends up sounding stale in comparison.
Thankfully, neither was the case on this occasion, largely due to the contributions of two old friends of the LA Phil, pianist Yefim Bronfman and composer and LA Phil Creative Chair John Adams. The result was a terrific evening of music all around, with each gentleman bringing Beethoven’s music to life in their own particular way, and serving as a reminder as to why Southern California audiences should be grateful that the two musicians have such close ties to this orchestra.
Things started off in very traditional fashion with the Coriolan overture as the curtain-raiser. Mr. Dudamel rarely finds an accent mark he doesn’t like, and this performance was full of punchy moments interspersed among an otherwise conventional rendition.
Up next was the first LA Phil performances of Absolute Jest, Mr. Adams’ work inspired by Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and that composer’s refraction of 18th Century composers (Pergolesi, Gallo, and others) into his own style and idiom. In this case, the source material was from Beethoven, with his late string quartets being the primary catalyst for the piece. As such, Mr. Adams decided to score Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra (!) and went about his compositional business.
The original version was commissioned for the 100th Anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony, and its world premiere was given by that orchestra in 2012 with its Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, on the podium. As the composer himself admitted in the program notes, the initial reception was not so great; this particularly ornery opinion represents the work’s naysayers:
“Listening to this busy if lightweight concoction, one wondered what the point is of pulling bits of Beethoven out of musical context, only to wind up with little more than jokey, hyperactive pastiche? . . . ‘Absolute Jest’ left behind the disquieting sensation of graffiti spray-painted on some of Beethoven’s most profound and, yes, serious invention.”
— John von Rhein (“Thomas, SF orchestra celebrate 80 years of rugged American individualism,” Chicago Tribune: March 22, 2012)
Not surprisingly therefore, Mr. Adams revised the piece (as he is often wont to do regardless of a work’s initial reception). In this case, he replaced the opening section of the 25-minute long composition with 400 bars of new music, and conducted the updated version for the first time with the New World Symphony six after the original premiere. It was this revision that the LA Phil performed for these concerts.
I never heard the original version of Absolute Jest (and managed to avoid/forget the concert reviews from that time), but whatever Mr. Adams did in those 400 new bars set up the rest of the work quite well. What could have been a slap-dash amalgamation of greatest hits was actually quite fun and inventive, with recognizable strands of Beethoven symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets being woven into a wholly different fabric.
In fact, this was easily the most upbeat I’ve felt after the first hearing of one of Mr. Adams’ works since Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil gave the world premiere of Naïve and Sentimental Music at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion nearly two decades ago. Whatever the composer’s intentions for Absolute Jest (more on that below), it succeeds specifically because it’s not trying to be as profound and/or deeply philosophical as, say, The Dharma at Big Sur or The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet served as the protagonists here as they did when both original and revised versions were given their respective premieres, showing technical and lyrical prowess throughout the performance. The orchestra, veterans of Mr. Adams’ complex rhythms, were also up to the task and added impressive contributions of their own.
After intermission, Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra returned with Mr. Bronfman for Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto. The Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist justifiably has a reputation for possessing virtuoso technique coupled with incredible power and impeccable control. The G major concerto calls for more of the latter than the former, rarely requiring anything louder than a comfortable mezzo-forte from the soloist.
As such, Mr. Bronfman shaped his performance with the calm precision of a surgeon. He took advantage of Walt Disney Concert Hall’s crystalline acoustics by making micro-adjustments to phrasing and dynamics, nudging a melodic line here and shaving off a decibel or two there. All those seemingly tiny choices added up to a breathtaking performance in total, putting a personal stamp on the well-known work while still letting Beethoven be Beethoven.
Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra provided appropriately deferential support throughout, reveling in their own moments without ever overshadowing the soloist. Overall, I don’t think I’ve heard a better Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto.
Random other thoughts:
- In the program notes, Mr. Adams writes that the word “jest” does not necessarily mean that the piece is intended to be a joke: “Of course there are ‘winks,’ some of them not entirely subtle, here and there in the piece. . . . [But] the “jest” of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta:’ doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.” This isn’t the first time that the composer has adorned a work with a seemingly straightforward title only to reveal an overly complex meaning. Read his tortured explanation for the meaning behind Naïve and Sentimental Music if you don’t believe me; in it, he begins by admitting ” ‘Naive’ and ‘sentimental’: I use these two terms knowing they may at first be misunderstood. . . . “
- More from Mr. Adams’ program notes, this time an observation: “ ‘String quartet and orchestra’ is admittedly a repertoire black hole – is there a single work in that medium that is regularly heard?” The answer is, of course, “no.” That said, I have heard a work scored for a similar array of instruments before: at the 2013 Ojai Festival by the similarly named John Luther Adams, there was for Lou Harrison. . . . Ewwwuuooghghgh – I still shudder at the memory of those arduous 60+ minutes of my life that I will never get back.
- A final comment about the programs: last year, the LA Phil redesigned the layout of the actual page in the program that summarizes the concert performers and pieces. It was a non-intuitive mess. This year, they’ve revised it again with much better results. I’m glad that they’ve made the effort to make it more reader-friendly.
- This was the first time I heard Boris Allakhverdyan, new Principal Clarinet of the LA Phil, play within the friendly confines of Disney Hall, and he sounded spectacular. It was only one concert, but despite the small sample size, I ‘m going to go out on a limb and say that he should be a worthy successor to the chair occupied with such great distinction by Michele Zukovsky for so many decades. In my humble opinion, the clarinet section as a whole – including Burt Hara (a luxury to have as Associate Principal given his distinguished tenure as 1st chair in both Minnesota and Philadelphia orchestras), Andrew Lowy (2nd/E-flat Clarinet and former Principal of the North Carolina Symphony), and David Howard (3rd/bass clarinet and former Principal of the New Jersey Symphony) – continues to be the strongest cohort within the entire orchestra.
- Speaking of new orchestra principals . . . Matthew Howard, the new Principal Percussionist, sounded great and looked calm and in control.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: September 30, 2016; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Adams: Absolute Jest
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
- John Adams: photos by Vern Evans
- Yefim Bronfman: photo by Dario Acosta