Los Angeles Music Review: SHOSTAKOVICH FIFTH WITH TOVEY (LA Phil at Disney Hall)

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by Tony Frankel on November 16, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


A funny thing happened on the way to witty raconteur and conductor Bramwell Tovey’s presentation of his Songs of the Paradise Saloon featuring trumpet soloist Alison Balsom at Disney Hall last Sunday: I came for this newer concerto but ended up being blown away by his ecstatic interpretation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. More surprising still was that the dependable Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was turned into a tour de force for the LA Phil players, making it no less electrifying than the Fifth.

Bramwell Tovey

Songs of the Paradise Saloon is a brief motif—followed by 12 variations—taken from a five minute scene in Tovey’s opera The Inventor, in which the lead character, Alexander Keith Jr., is tracked down in a bar called Paradise Saloon. Keith is a true-to-life 19th century swindler, sociopath, mass murderer, and beloved husband. The titular saloon (or “pub” as Tovey calls it) was the stomping ground for the disreputable denizens of New York; in Tovey’s world, that includes A Man Who Scratches and Smells and A Woman with a Feathery Fan. Songs represents the dastardly Mr. Keith conniving and seducing his way around the bar. The numerous approaches Keith uses in his scheming are represented in varying musical styles—I heard Gershwin-esque jazz, symbolism, a waltz with multiple tonalities, and moodily romantic strains, something like a lush film score.

Balsom’s trumpet represents Keith working the saloon; this is why she sounded like a sort of drunken revelry on cornet, and a smooth operator on flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet. I have no idea who else is represented by different instruments, but bassist Dennis Trembly, cellist Robert deMaine, and keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin clearly stood out. Unfortunately, the 25-minute piece lacks an arc, the motif is imperceptible (so it’s tough to delight in all those variations), and Bramwell’s amusing orchestrations can’t belie that there isn’t much drama here. It’s diverting but largely a shoulder-shrugging affair, and I sense that Balsom could not locate the soul of the concerto, so her talent seemed wasted, even as the trills and vibratos from her brass were perfectly executed.

Alison Balsom

Variations-on-a-theme is equally the context for the 17-minute The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. When commissioned to compose an educational piece to be used in a documentary film for schools, Benjamin Britten took a hornpipe from Henry Purcell’s The Moor’s Revenge (1695), and created 26 variations (or movements) that vibrantly put the whole orchestra through its routine. After a bold tutti declaration of the melody, each of the orchestra’s four main sections—woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion—is highlighted in continual variations. More astounding than Britten’s sophisticated and polished output was Tovey’s elicitation of impeccable work from his players: Sarah Jackson percolated on the piccolo; Lou Anne Neill had a hoot on the harp; Joseph Pereira was a titan on timpani; and Perry Dreiman pounded on a plethora of percussion.

LA Phil flutist Julien Beaudiment

As energetic and high-spirited as ever, Tovey, the former LA Phil principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl, did something remarkable with his leadership of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5: He went from a more than reliable conductor and witty annotator to a ferocious awe-inducing maestro extraordinaire. He came out of the gate stately and steady but with room to build, offering a perfect balance so that individual players—oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, concertmaster Martin Chalifour, and especially that new star, the remarkable Julien Beaudiment on flute—each had a chance to shine.

The precise plucking of the pizzicato strings was a wonder during the undeniably accessible second movement, and they held that exquisite pianissimo tremolo in the mysterious third movement with powerful delicacy. There was no fooling around as Tovey blasted us into that glorious final movement; I applaud him for sticking to Shostakovich’s metronome markings instead of proceeding entirely at random as so many conductors are wont to do.

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photos courtesy of LA Phil

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
BRITTEN: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
TOVEY: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5
Walt Disney Concert Hall
played November 8 – 10, 2013
for LA Phil events and tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit http://www.laphil.com/

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