Music Review: ELGAR AND TCHAIKOVSKY (LA Phil; Paolo Bortolameolli, conductor; Camille Thomas, cello)

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by Tony Frankel on March 7, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

WAR AND PEACE

LA Phil’s Associate Conductor Paolo Bortolameolli made sure that two of the best-known chestnuts in the repertoire were presented by the LA Phil players last weekend in such a way that they sounded completely different than any interpretation one has heard. And given Russia’s hateful invasion of Ukraine last week, Elgar’s Cello Concerto could not have been programmed at a more appropriate time.

A prairie of emotions, the concerto was written near the end of WWI. With Elgar’s Edwardian world gone forever, many of his compatriots dead, and personal health issues for both him and his wife, it’s no accident that the work begins ominous and somber, yet it is full of life and intensity, containing what seems like a capacity for both mourning and the continuation of a purposeful existence.

Whereas famous interpreters Alisa Weilerstein (my favorite) and Jacqueline du Pré (the best) have dug in with earthy authority, Belgian cellist Camille Thomas — wearing a sleeveless mustardy dress with blue sash (the Ukrainian colors) — traded histrionics for a mournful, lyrical approach. She often played at the same aural level as the orchestra, as if to say the suffering belongs to all of us. Yet even with a sweet fragility to her interpretation, she offered a harder vibrato, her beautiful face heightened by Disney Hall’s harmonic environs. She was like a breathing Vermeer painting. Saturday afternoon’s audience was enraptured enough that Thomas came back with Pablo Casals’ version of The Song of the Birds (El cant dels ocells), a melody from Catalan folklore. This enchantingly beautiful encore reinforced what Casals said to the UN in 1971, When birds sing in the sky, they sing “Peace, Peace, Peace.”

Opening the program was a world premiere of Miguel Farías’s Estallido, which means “explosion” in English. The pre-talk and program notes seemed to prepare us for atonal detonations, ones inspired by the 2019 “social outbreak” in Chile. Yet this 9-minute haunted house score proved to be a lot of fun. I was reminded of the great Carl Stalling, who is most closely associated with the music in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts: Short sweeps of strings; wah-wah sliding trombones; plucky comical bursts of percussion (wood blocks, chime, xylophone; and chirping reeds. While it was occasionally ominous with buzzing bass and insistent brass, as if to portend something is coming, the bongos added a festive Latin atmosphere, and there was an overplay of jazzy riffs. It’s a shame that Friday night’s program did not include this piece for “Casual Fridays.”

After intermission, Bortolameolli was in no rush with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, “Pathetique.” Without score, he began stealthily, educing out sections even when they did not carry melody. It was like a master class in  orchestrating and conducting. Yet the third movement, Allegro Molto Vivace, was even more vivace than I’ve heard before. It grew so quickly and expansively that something happened which was one for the books: many patrons, who mostly remained quiet between movements (a rarity at Disney Hall), stood to their feet shouting “Bravo.” This was after the third of four movements. The man next to me said, “If you’re not spirited by that, then you’re dead!” Then the finale, with some of the most expressive string writing ever. All the players stood out — Burt Hara’s clarinet; Whitney Crockett’s bassoon — but it was Joseph Pereira’s timpani that truly impressed.

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Paolo Bortolameolli, conductor
Camille Thomas, cello

Miguel FARÍAS  Estallido (world premiere) (except Friday)
ELGAR  Cello Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY  Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”
*Fri, MAR 4–Casual Friday: a shorter program followed by a Q&A with the artists and a complimentary after-party drink provided by HiDef Brewing in the Grand Avenue lobby.

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