Post image for Music Review: DUDAMEL CONDUCTS STRAUSS (LA Phil)

by Tony Frankel on October 15, 2021

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Americans are weary. We remain as divisive as ever, a situation fueled by social media, news, and other white noise. We are working harder and longer yet struggle to pay bills — at the same time quitting jobs in record numbers. Instead of being inspired to do more to combat the speed of global warming, we are overwhelmed or insouciant. And then there are the fires. And the cancel culture. And victimhood. And Corporate America. And overcrowding. And why the hell is only 57.3% of the population fully vaccinated as of today?

This is what was on my mind driving to Disney Hall last night to see the LA Phil season opener, a night of Schoenberg and Richard Strauss, which plays through Sunday. The great Herbert Glass’s program notes quote Strauss as being devastated by the allied bombings of Munich’s opera house, the National Theater. “This was the great catastrophe of my life. For that there can be no consolation in my old age, no hope.” With hopelessness abounding in the present, Gustavo Dudamel surely had the mood of his patrons in mind. It was programmatic genius to present Strauss’s Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra, completed a year before his death at 85. Achingly beautiful but without sentiment, Strauss looks back on his career by speaking of the end of life, but in a way that underscores how we are all part of an eternity.

Possessed by a gently nurturing mother spirit, Golda Schultz enthralled. Polished, attractive, cohesive, and ever-radiant, the South African soprano offered a tender articulation of the lyrics and deep understanding of the music. The speeds were perfectly judged by the ecstatic Dudamel and everything had an luminous glow about it. It was transcendent music making at every level, aided by Martin Chalifour’s violin solos. While these are “autumn” songs, Schultz presented them as rich and youthful. I actually felt my heart expand.

But now that I was in a pensive mood, here comes Strass’s Death and Transfiguration (1889), the tone poem that was written just after Don Juan. Dudamel served the work’s greatest objectives by impelling the orchestra with driving, go-for-broke energy and, especially, in exploring details of texture with his woodwinds. Strauss’s father played the horn, and among the pleasures of this piece was the splendid brass section, en masse and in solos — Principal Horn Andrew Bain has the clearest and most controlled flavor I have ever heard. But everyone else, too, was in excellent shape. Emmanuel Ceysson, appointed to the post of Harp last year, was simply dynamic; I heard every note of the arpeggios. The result was animated and strapping with a hefty force behind those awesome apogees. I now felt renewed.

The muscular string section proved its might in the program opener, Verklärte Nacht, originally a string sextet in one movement composed by Arnold Schoenberg in 1899, and then arranged for string orchestra in 1917. Transfigured Night was inspired by a mystical poem by Richard Dehmel. In cold, moonlit woods, a woman confesses to her lover that she carries the child of another man she never loved but to whom she yielded for fulfillment. After a long pause of brooding meditation, he resolves that their love will make the child their own. They embrace and walk on, the formerly barren night transformed by hope and devotion. Accessible and emotional, the stupendous and awesome musicians followed suit by becoming a living, breathing organism of passion. It was uncanny, but I could actually sense feeling from the viola of Teng Li. And a shout out to the bass section, which actually rumbled the hall. Probably inspired by Brahms and Wagner, the piece is definitely Schoenberg. The evening reminded me of a phrase heard from a musicologist: “Wagner sees love as death; Schoenberg sees love as forgiveness.” How will we feel after seeing LA Opera’s Tannhäuser, which opens tomorrow?

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