Los Angeles Music Review: RACHMANINOFF & STRAVINSKY WITH DUDAMEL & WANG (LA Phil)

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by Tony Frankel on December 20, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

PUPPETS, THE PACIFIC, AND A PROFICIENT PIANO CONCERTO

It’s not an uncommon occurrence with a Los Angeles Philharmonic program: I come expecting Yuja Wang’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to truly blow me away. While she certainly had her place in the sun, it was Gustavo Dudamel’s triumphant leadership with Stravinsky’s Petrushka that took me by surprise.

Composer Daníel Bjarnason.

This program opened with the world premiere of Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s Blow bright, an LA Phil commission. The title is taken from Philip Larkin’s poem “Night-Music,” but this orchestral piece was stimulated by Bjarnason’s reaction to the Pacific Ocean. The abstract work made full use of LA Phil’s massive orchestra, starting with percussion: A wood block begins our journey as if we were flying over the seas near Japan and soon we are on an adventure as vast as the ocean and as variable as the weather.

The music—alternately driving, mysterious, rollicking, and dangerous—goes from shimmering to trudging to glassiness in a moment. That’s a lot of territory to cover in 11 minutes, but it’s a fascinating trek, broken occasionally by a lovely violin melody played by Concertmaster Martin Chalifour. Blow bright sounds as if it had been composed to underscore a movie scene about pirates or predators of the deep. It’s truly entertaining, with wonderful orchestrations, yet I wonder what Bjarnason could do if he had a narrative.

gustavo dudamel

And narrative was clearly the inspiration for Stravinsky when he wrote Petrushka (1911), his second ballet score for Diaghilev after Firebird. It tells the tale of three anthropomorphic puppets brought to life by a magician. Petrushka is the assertive clown who falls for the Ballerina, only be murdered by a jealous Moor. But when Petrushka’s ghost emerges, it leaves both the frightened magician and the audience to wonder what exactly constitutes reality.

Stravinsky’s 1947 concert version retains the flavors of the story’s locale, Shovetide Fair, and the characters’ emotions; it also happens to be a brilliant showcase for the LA Phil musicians. Dudamel extracted exquisite individuality from his players; boy oh boy, could I ever hear Rite of Spring already in the works for Stravinsky (it would be his next ballet score). The piano is used to articulate the title character’s musical signature and the famous bitonal harmonies were given a crisp and splendid rendition by Joanne Pearce Martin. Julien Beaudiment’s communicative flute represents both the ballerina and the magician’s spell. Also drenched in personality and flawless technique was Thomas Hooten on trumpet, Whitney Crockett on bassoon, Joseph Pereira on timpani, Burt Hara on clarinet, Andrew Bain on horn, and Norman Pearson on tuba.

Yuja Wang

Partly due to its inclusion in the biopic Shine, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 has become far more popular in the repertoire, even though it is considered to be one of the most technically challenging concertos ever written. This is because of its enormous chords (typical of Rachmaninoff’s works) which are gruelingly intersected with breakneck fingering. Popular thinking subscribes to the notion that Rachmaninoff should be tackled by Russian pianists with hands the same size as his enormous paws.

Based on performances from Helfgott to Horowitz (who played the Third at LA Phil’s first presentation of the work in 1930), people assume that only a male pianist can offer the velocity, attacks and duration necessary to bring the 1909 work—or any Rachmaninoff piece for that matter—to life. Having witnessed Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov belt Rach’s Piano Concerto No.2 into the stratosphere, and French pianist Lise de la Salle’s technically and emotionally weak Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (both with the LA Phil), I began to wonder if there was some merit to that thinking.

Well, guess what? Yuja Wang is quickly demolishing the theory that Rachmaninoff is a man’s world. Not only did she offer a graceful rapidity and firm trajectory to Rach’s Third Piano Concerto at Disney Hall this morning, but she brings out notes which normally get lost within the cascading arpeggios. And because her technique is ridiculously fluid, her pedaling is spare rather than weighty. As for her feathery fingering, if you listen to the 2009 RCA digitalized release of Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff, it becomes clear that Wang plays more like the master himself than those who interpret him with a heavy touch.

While not as expressive as Horowitz’s interpretation of the Rach 3, she made Helfgott’s technically proficient version seem like a by-the-numbers buzzkill. Wang looked better than both men, however: Stunning in a creamy, floor-length gown, she was positively glamorous. And it was astounding how her tiny hands could execute the widespread stretches that Rachmaninoff requires. My favorite part was the thrill ride she took us on through that asteroid field of notes in the finale’s final stretches.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel has played the concerto with Wang before (the two have just released a recording with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra), so they felt comfortable enough to egg each other on. Together they made the concerto lush, sweeping, soaring and romantic; only occasionally did the brawny LA Phil drown her out. Hopefully, she will one day match Trifonov’s expressiveness and his otherworldly emotional depths. She certainly has the showmanship: For her encore, she played a tribute to Art Tatum’s arrangement of Youman’s “Tea for Two.” Anyone who can match Tatum’s stride piano is a superstar in my book.

This program elucidated LA Phil’s standing as one of the world’s leading orchestras: Another impressive world premiere, a showcase for a star pianist, a popular conductor who takes risks, and a program that validates why each player deserves to be a star soloist. You can catch this very happy holiday present through Sunday.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic
Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky with Dudamel & Wang
BJARNASON: Blow bright
RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3
STRAVINSKY: Petrushka
Walt Disney Concert Hall
ends December 22, 2013
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit www.LAPhil.com

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