Los Angeles Music & Dance Review: STRAVINSKY & BALANCHINE’S APOLLO (LA Phil at Disney Hall)

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by Tony Frankel on November 28, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

APOLLO EARTHBOUND; SHOSTAKOVICH SOARS

Rollicking, mysterious, and adventurous may be attributes of Britten’s Young Apollo,but these adjectives also describe the outcome, respectively, of the three pieces that comprised the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s program last night. Britten’s 1939 10-minute work for piano, string quartet, and string orchestra, included a rip-roaring performance by Joanne Pearce Martin; Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet Apollo was bafflingly ineffectual; and, after intermission, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor was given an audacious rendition by conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

gustavo dudamel la phil

Inspired by Keats’s unfinished poem Hesperion, Young Apollo premiered in Toronto with Britten himself on the keyboard. But the accessible piece was withdrawn soon afterwards, and wasn’t published until after his death. It’s true that the work is remarkably monotonal (in A major, a key that Britten used to express characteristics of the “fanfare”), but I ‘m not sold that Britten withdrew the work after the second performance for this reason, as some scholars have suggested. Britten never divulged why he did this. Regardless, I’m thrilled it’s in the repertoire now. Inspired? Not really, But it’s a lot of fun to watch live as Britten avoids tedium with extraordinary varieties of texture in the scoring. Besides, the string quartet on hand was worth the price of admission: lyrical Martin Chalifour (violin), sturdy Lyndon Johnston Taylor (violin), the remarkably expressive Carrie Dennis (viola), and the tough but tender Robert deMaine (cello). And Ms. Pearce Martin really nailed some tough arpeggios.

Robert Bolle

After watching American Ballet Theatre superstar Robert Bolle perform Apollo last night, I couldn’t help but wonder if he and Dudamel hadn’t recovered from enormous turkey dinners the day before. George Balanchine’s choreography to Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet was faithfully recreated here, but instead of being enthralled by the Balanchine technique, I found it ponderous and tranquilizing. To begin with, Dudamel’s pacing was gooey, and his 34-member string orchestra was forced to play the score–one of Stravinsky’s most serene ballets–like Muzak. I wonder if the pace may have been partly Bolle’s choice, as he has performed the role numerous times, and even did a solo from the four-character piece when Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at its 2012 Gala.

stravinsky balanchine

The plot-free ballet has two “scenes”: The first is the birth of Apollo. The second has Apollo bestowing upon three muses the symbol that represents their art. The god-like Bolle stood gorgeous and perfectly statuesque in height and arm length, a de-rigueur characteristic of a Balanchine dancer (Bolle is also a model). I can’t speak to previous incarnations, but here the 40-year-old seemed somewhat miscast. While his impressive technique and speedy gestures belie the fact that he is near retirement age, he is so thick from working out that he came off more like a balletic tree than an immature god boy who’s light on his feet. Bolle is incredibly strong but not as lithe as is called for, so the entire piece felt heavy and lugubrious. Hee Seo, Stella Abrera, and Devon Teuscher sparkled with luxuriousness as the muses, although they didn’t always arrive with the beat, and their individual exits were made somewhat wonky by walking down stairways in their (unintentionally) very loud toe shoes. This Apollo was neither appealing nor appalling.

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Nearly all of Disney Hall’s 2,265 seats were sold, and Apollo received a scattered but sustained applause. But you can’t fool an audience. After the second half of the program, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the patrons roared. And rightfully so. With no score before him, Dudamel began disconcertingly deliberate. Yet that allowed for principal players to shine in ways that gave personality to the solos. Especially rapturous were Andrew Bain (horn), Michele Zukovsky (clarinet), Catherine Ransom Karoly (flute), Sarah Jackson (piccolo), and Joseph Pereira (timpani). True, there’s an unrelenting build in the work (especially in the largo), but Dudamel took this popular, and surprisingly still controversial, symphony, and turned it into a monster of emotion.

photos courtesy of LA Phil

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
BRITTEN: Young Apollo, Op. 16
STRAVINSKY: Apollo (choreography by George Balanchine)
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S Grand Ave.
ends on November 29, 2015
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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