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Checking in with the LA Phil (part 2 of 3): a quick look back at January’s concerts

tovey-mehta-bringuier-dudamelThe four weekends of concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this past January were noteworthy for three reasons:  the diversity of programming, the quality of playing, and that the first three conductors — Bramwell Tovey, Zubin Mehta, and Lionel Bringuier — once held titled positions with the orchestra while the fourth, Gustavo Dudamel, is the LA Phil’s current Music & Artistic Director.

It was a tour de force of the orchestra’s virtuosity in a wide range of music, from works in the core repertoire to more obscure but no less rewarding 20th century pieces.  Moreover, the individual concerts highlighted specific qualities which makes the relationship between the LA Phil and each of the conductors special.

Bramwell Tovey:  January 8, 2017

These days, many conductors give remarks from the podium before performing a piece.  Few are as successful in informing and amusing the audience as Mr. Tovey is, and even fewer manage to entertain the orchestra in the process.  The English conductor regularly used his dry, sardonic wit to chat up the crowds during his 2008-2010 tenure as the LA Phil’s “Principal Guest Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl.”  While he no longer holds that mouthful of an official position, he still employs his gift of gab whenever he returns as a guest conductor.

His introduction to the second half of this concert, the complete Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Sleeping Beauty, kept those onstage and in the hall in stitches.  I can’t think of anyone else who could call out Principal Cello Robert deMaine or the entire horn section with sarcastic insults without causing a revolt, let alone leading them to immediately play with such beauty and refinement as they did on this afternoon.  Mr. deMaine’s solo in the “Pas d’action” was particularly breathtaking.

In contrast, the first half of the concert featured no words from the podium, letting the music speak for itself.  He opened the concert with  the rarely played Façade Suite #2 by William Walton, taken from a collaboration between the composer and poet Edith Sitwell.  Mr. Walton himself conducted the work’s LA Phil premiere in 1953, though it’d be hard to imagine it played with more jauntiness and good humor than was displayed on this day with Mr. Tovey at the helm.  Standout work by Denis Bouriakov (flute), Burt Hara (clarinet), James Rotter (saxophone), and Thomas Hooten (trumpet) were highlights.

In between the two dance-inspired works of music was the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Ray Chen as soloist.  It has honestly never been a favorite of mine but Messrs. Chen and Tovey gave it as compelling a reading as I’ve heard.  For an encore, Mr. Chen played the Paganini Caprice #21.  His heart-felt approach combined with fantastic chops gave the audience an even better reason than the concerto to reward his efforts with a loud and sustained ovation.

Zubin Mehta:  January 15, 2017

Los Angeles has always had a love affair with Mr. Mehta, and judging by the massive ovation he received from audience and orchestra alike, that hasn’t changed; when I bumped into one of the members of the brass section on the way to the parking garage, he went so far as to refer to Mr. Mehta as a “mensch.”  The LA Phil’s former music director doesn’t come around as often as he used to, and he seems to be decreasing the number of appearances, with the most notable evidence being his announced retirement from nearly four decades as Music Director-for-Life of the Israel Philharmonic.

That doesn’t diminish his impact on the podium, as evidenced by the orchestra’s sterling tone, responsiveness, and technical prowess in a pair of very different works.

The weekend’s three concerts began with Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 2, “Raga mala,” in its long overdue West Coast premiere, with the composer’s daughter, Anoushka Shankar, as the soloist.

The four-movement work begins with soloist and orchestra playing as two separate entities, with the orchestra playing in distinct chunks — percussion here, brass there, now the strings, then the woodwinds — as accompaniment rather than actively integrating with the soloist.  Think of orchestration more like, say, a Chopin piano concerto meets the Sibelius 2nd Symphony, and you kind of get the idea.   In fact, there was no orchestral tutti until the end of the first movement.  Instead, the focus was primarily on Ms. Shankar’s solo work, and she shined with long melodic lines paired with more intricate fast-paced passages.

As the roughly 50 minute work progressed, more dialogue occurred between soloist and individual orchestra musicians before the two eventually came together in thoroughly integrated fashion, with easily distinguished melodies and harmonies, and straightforward rhythms punctuated by regular pulses emanating from the percussion.  Ms. Shankar’s virtuosity and musicality were very impressive, as were individual contributions by Nathan Cole on violin, Cathy Karoly on flute, Mr. Hooten on trumpet, and Mr. Hara on clarinet.

In the end, it was interesting and exciting.  I’m not normally a fan of sitar music in general, but I would eagerly pay money to see this concerto again.

The second half featured a work dead-center in Mr. Mehta’s wheelhouse, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) by Richard Strauss.  It was an interpretation of unabashed grandiosity combined with the utmost refinement, with the conductor looking relaxed and in complete control, never looking like he was pushing too much or trying too hard.

During his tenure as Music Director, Mr. Mehta was outspoken about his goal of making the LA Phil sound more like the Vienna Philharmonic.  There aren’t many players left from those days, but  it was still no surprise that the he coaxed extra warmth and lushness from the orchestra, particularly the strings, while taking advantage of its responsiveness. The brass sound was big without ever becoming bombastic, the woodwinds rich in character and employing a full spectrum of tonal colors.  Martin Chalifour, the orchestra’s Principal Concertmaster, played the prominent violin solos with aplomb.

The audience responded somewhat unexpectedly:  instead of erupting in an instant massive ovation, they offered a more controlled, yet still loud constant stream of applause that continued unabated throughout multiple curtain calls, slowly growing in enthusiasm each time Mr. Mehta’s returned to the stage.  The orchestra’s reaction was more predictable:  applause, foot shuffles, bobbing bows, and most of all, big smiles across every face.  Let’s hope he comes back more often.

Lionel Bringuier:  January 20, 2017

French conductor Lionel Bringuier had the longest tenure as a staff conductor at the LA Phil, starting as Assistant Conductor in 2007 under Esa-Pekka Salonen before being promoted to Associate Conductor by Mr. Dudamel, and eventually becoming the first ever Resident Conductor.  By the time he left the orchestra in 2013, he was widely regarded as one of the “next big things” in conducting circles, with his appointment as Principal Conductor of the venerable Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich being clear evidence of the fact.

Yet despite what seemed like a reasonably successful first two years, the Swiss orchestra announced that his contract would not be renewed after his initial four-year tenure ends in 2018.  Go figure.  Whatever may have happened or didn’t happen in Zurich, he remains a welcome guest in Los Angeles, and his most recent visit was a strong indication as to why.

Mr. Bringuier has a deft touch with the orchestra, knowing when to push and when to give some space.  He favors a bright tone and transparent textures not unlike his mentor, Mr. Salonen.  Most of all, his interpretations are finely balanced and intelligently structured, almost always resulting in strong performances.

This was clearest in his take on Stravinsky’s Petrushka, played here in the slightly shortened suite of the 1947 revision.  Eagle-eyed readers of All is Yar might notice that the work is one of my favorites (cough, notes at the top of the page, cough cough), and Mr. Bringuier did not disappoint.  He created a finely detailed sonic landscape that helped bring the title character’s adventures to life.  The music of Stravinsky seems like second nature to this orchestra, and they gave the conductor  playing of precision combined with great lyricism.

Soloists were stellar.  Joanne Pearce Martin played the famous piano part with flair.  Principal Trumpet Tom Hooten was his usual radiant self throughout, and playing the fiendishly difficult Ballerina solo with near perfection.  Most notably, Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov was magnificent in his many exposed moments; he may not be as extroverted a player as his predecessor, Julien Beaudiment, but he is no less expressive in his playing, especially in this work where he unleashed a torrent of technical virtuosity combined with timbral variety; long may he occupy the LA Phil’s first chair.

The centerpiece of the evening was Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto.  Gil Shaham, another LA Phil favorite, played the gnarly solo part.  The violinist barely finished acknowledging the applause that welcomed him to the stage before starting into the piece straight away.  His silky playing fed into the piece’s restless mood, and he had no trouble meeting all of the work’s demands while bringing out its charm and humorous moments.  As if his stellar take was not enough, he generously offered Bach’s Gavotte in rondo form as an encore.  The audience ate it all up, and  everyone seemed to go into intermission happy.

The concert opened with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, played here in the more famous Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement rather than the composer’s own version.  I strongly prefer the original, with Rimsky’s alterations paving over Mussorgsky’s raw edges with too much smoothness.  Mr. Bringuier seemed content to let the revision speak for itself, offering a pleasant, if straightforward, run through of the piece.  Mr. Bouriakov had some tasty moments in the limelight, foreshadowing his more meaty solos that were to come later in the concert.

Gustavo Dudamel:  January 26, 2017

The LA Phil playing a concert juxtaposing music by Mozart against works by Schoenberg reminds one of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as Music Director.  It is exactly the kind of intellectually challenging and somewhat unexpected program that he made famous.  So it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to see his successor, Mr. Dudamel, decide to tackle a program that matched Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene and Piano Concerto with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat and Symphony No. 31, “Paris,” in D.

Let’s say right up front:  it was clear that Schoenberg, or at least his music on this program, is not Mr. Dudamel’s strong suit.  Unlike most of his conducting, he read from the score for most of the concert, and you could tell.  The result was a tentative reading of Accompaniment to a Film Scene, not particularly bad but lacking in the kind of distinctiveness and self-assurance present in most of his conducting.  For their part, the LA Phil musicians played it well and gave Mr. Dudamel everything for which he asked and then some.

Even the Mozart “Paris” Symphony seemed to suffer from the same malaise, especially in the first movement; Mr. Dudamel usually prefers a more robust approach to Mozart, but in this case, things felt hemmed in and subdued until gaining momentum in the 3rd movement finale.  That said, the symphony was the most compelling music of the evening.

Emanuel Ax offered a more experienced hand with the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, a piece he recorded with Mr. Salonen and the Philharmonia (in an even more surprising pairing with the two Liszt concertos).  He gave some welcome shape to the piece, and was particularly outstanding in the work’s cadenza-like section.  He also made the Mozart 14th Piano Concerto more interesting than it otherwise would have been with a less skilled pianist.  It can be a challenging work for the listener, pretty enough but missing the melodic hook and/or structural ingenuity of his other work.  Mr. Ax managed to highlight the work’s most charming and lyrical moments while maintaining precision within a narrow dynamic range.

Taken together, it was an interesting, well-played evening of music even if the overall feeling about the pieces was not a particularly compelling one.  Still, kudos for Mr. Dudamel for putting such a program on the season.  Perhaps future performances will result in more probing interpretations.

 

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  January 8, 2017; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Ray Chen, violin

Walton: Façade Suite No. 2
Sibelius: Violin Concerto (c. 30 minutes)
Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty, Act 2

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  January 15, 2017; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Zubin Mehta, conductor
Anoushka Shankar, sitar

Shankar: Sitar Concerto No. 2, “Raga mala” (West Coast premiere)
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  January 20, 2017; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Lionel Bringuier, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin

Mussorgsky (Arr. Rimsky-Korsakov): Night on Bald Mountain
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor
Stravinsky: Petrushka (suite of 1947 ed.)

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  January 26, 2017; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

Schoenberg: Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Op. 34
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449
Schoenberg: Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (c. 20 minutes)
Mozart: Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297 (“Paris”)

—————

Photo credits:

  • Bramwell Tovey:  courtesy of the artist’s website
  • Zubin Mehta:  photo by Terry Linke
  • Lionel Bringuier:  photo by Jonathan Grimbert Barre
  • Gustavo Dudamel:  courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

 

 

 

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