Music Review: DUDAMEL CONDUCTS SALONEN & SHOSTAKOVICH (Los Angeles Philharmonic)

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by Tony Frankel on April 14, 2018

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


There’s nothing more wonderful than witnessing a world premiere and craving to hear it again immediately as an encore. Such was the experience with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s brand new 12-minute tone poem, composed this year. If the Symbolist Debussy and Modernist Salonen had a love child (Debusalonen!), it would be this beautiful, touching tonic that was great to listen to. It started eerie, with Bernard Herrmann-esque strings introducing a mysterious adventure, with the basses offering a low melody that soon opened up like an expansive ocean. With the support of the strings, the flute’s plaintive melody was soon joined by the woodwinds with a varying palette of impressionistic colors. Salonen, a master orchestrator, retained a soothing subtlety reminiscent of Ravel, adding lovely touches of percussion. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel ensured there were no sharp turns, and the leisurely pace was perfect, slowly shifting the proceedings so that nothing jumped out at you. What’s not to like?

Coincidentally, LA Phil’s Conductor Laureate Salonen led the program’s next work, Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, four years ago at Disney Hall, and he was more than right when he called it a “monster of a piece … not pretty but impossible to ignore.” Had Loony Tunes’ composer Carl Stalling and Stravinsky had a love child (Stallinsky!), this would have been its composition. It’s precisely the opposite in nature of Pollux, relentlessly coming at you in waves of sound and fury, but I can’t say it signifies something. Amériques doesn’t go anywhere; it’s just a collection of sounds using different building blocks.

Written between 1918 and 1921, and revised in 1927, Varèse melds fin de siècle impressionism with the awesome commotion of New York (including police sirens) and the limitless possibilities afforded by the same New World that inspired Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. It may begin with morsels of birdsong, but that is just a wind-up of an Industrial Revolution motor; a rhythmic, almost frightening modernity that blitzes the listener with (seemingly) disordered bombardments of percussion and unconventional orchestral effects that lead to a brash and very loud pandemonium.

Using a score — a rarity for him — Dudamel gave us a vigorous and explosive rendition — but what else could he do? This isn’t the kind of work you interpret per se; the composer’s done all of the work for you. The instrumentation is so massive that the four upstage rows of bench seats, normally used for either chorus or spectators, were removed for the orchestra’s equally massive percussion section, which took up the space behind the tympani to slap, snap, crackle, jangle, crash, whip and wail (as with Tchaikovsky’s cannons, Varèse’s sirens are iconic). And you need players of a remarkable caliber who can handle, for example, a heckelphone (a kind of Wagnerian oboe), a bass clarinet, a bass trombone, and a contrabass trombone (beautifully blared). And, boy, does the LA Phil got them. This creative cacophony was captivating up to and including the crashing climax.

Finishing this ginormous program is Shostakovich’s popular Fifth Symphony (popular, in part, to those immensely satisfying melodies). The first thing I came away with is the amazing string section. While the brass, woodwinds, and percussion have always excelled at LA Phil, the strings are actually getting better. I believe I espied some new faces, so I suspect that Dudamel has done some shifting of players (here, he wrapped the basses around the cellos). The result is a fuller, lusher, more resonant sound, especially notable in the second movement’s pizzicato work and the third movement’s sweeping arcs. Also notable: Denis Bouriakov on flute, Whitney Crockett on bassoon, and Concertmaster Martin Chalifour with sweet, steady violin playing.

But the most frequently performed symphony from that poet of paranoia began very languid with no sense of urgency until a roaring crescendo that led into the march. Shostakovich always works better for me when there’s palpable fear, persecution, and terror in the quiet moments. Here it was lush and well-played, but didn’t set the proper context. Still the fast and furious finale flipped the full house into a frenzy, the commotion of which brought us an encore — how rare is that? Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde is special enough to begin a program, but here it ended a spectacular performance that gave more bang for your buck than I can remember.

photos courtesy of LA Phil

Dudamel Conducts Salonen & Shostakovich
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
ends on April 15, 2018
for future events, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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