Music Review: STRAVINSKY AND SHOSTAKOVICH WITH DUDAMEL (Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; Conductor Gustavo Dudamel; LA Phil at Disney Hall)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on October 8, 2023

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


The strains of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 have forever held a special place in my heart. It is a sentimentality rooted in a rather extraordinary moment of my own origin, an occurrence forever entwined with the ethereal melodies of this masterpiece. On that fateful December 6 in the annus mirabilis of 1966, my mother, in the throes of impending motherhood, found herself within the hallowed confines of Tel Aviv’s main concert hall, accompanied by none other than the illustrious Israel Philharmonic. And leading this auditory voyage, the preeminent cellist of all time, Mstislav Rostropovich, graced the stage, guided by the baton of the legendary Zubin Mehta.

It was this very composition, composed by Shostakovich in 1959 and dedicated to the virtuoso Rostropovich himself, that serenaded my entry into the world. My father, a fervent devotee of classical music, had long harbored the dream of witnessing Rostropovich’s divine artistry in the flesh, and thus was loath to depart from the auditorium. But as fate would have it, a mere two minutes into the concerto, a most unexpected and dramatic event transpired: my mother’s placental waters chose that moment to make their debut upon the concert hall’s carpeted expanse. And so, as my mother would amusingly recount, they made their exit, with her amniotic fluid tracing a liquid trail, a testament to the fortuitous timing of my arrival. It brings me comfort to know that the Mann auditorium’s carpet has since been renewed several times, for my embryonic legacy is no longer entwined within its fibers.

In the constellation of tonight’s LA Phil program at Disney Hall, the distinguished spotlight fell upon none other than the illustrious royal wedding cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. At a mere 24 years of age, Sheku has ascended to the zenith of musical acclaim in his homeland, the United Kingdom, securing his place as a venerable luminary within the realm of classical music. Alongside his equally prodigious siblings, his meteoric rise to prominence found its inception through their enthralling performances on Britain’s Got Talent.

Notwithstanding the massive PR machine behind him, Sheku’s concert presence exuded an understated, unadorned grace, offering solace and serenity through the medium of his mellifluous artistry. In particular, this evening witnessed his virtuosic engagement with the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no. 1, which also happens to be arguably the most challenging piece in the cello repertoire.

The concerto catapulted Sheku to the forefront of the classical music sphere in 2016, earning him the prestigious BBC Young Musician Award and heralding the dawn of an illustrious career.

As expected, his technical proficiency, manifesting itself in a flawless execution of the concerto’s demanding elements—rapid scale runs, arpeggios, double stops, and intricate bowing patterns—elicited nothing short of astonishment. Sheku’s navigational prowess through the intricate rhythmic tapestries, syncopations, and unconventional meters that define this score was nothing less than masterful. Of particular note is the concerto’s third movement, essentially a solo cadenza for the cello—a technically daunting Mount Everest. His performance scaled this peak with an unruffled grace, eschewing the customary contortions—both facial and physical—that often accompany interpretations of this monumental piece.

However, from a vantage point inclined towards interpretation, Sheku’s artistry left me with a certain yearning. Shostakovich’s oeuvre, including this concerto, is an emotional kaleidoscope, demanding the conveyance of a spectrum spanning from introspective and melancholic moments to frenzied and manic crescendos. In the realm of introspection and somber reflection, Sheku’s playing unveiled subtlety and a captivating lyricism, casting a spell of wistful beauty upon the listener. Yet, in traversing the tempestuous terrain of Shostakovich’s fervent and impassioned passages, Sheku’s performance, characterized by an even-tempered and “chill” demeanor, somewhat lacked the requisite intensity. As my esteemed colleague Tony Frankel aptly remarked in his appraisal of Sheku’s rendition of Haydn’s Cello Concerto, Sheku refrains from robust “attack” and “grind” engagements with the cello, qualities epitomized by his illustrious contemporaries Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, and Sol Gabetta. Sheku’s interpretive lexicon, centered on lushness and aesthetic allure, undeniably aligns with the romantic idiom but finds itself less accommodating within the astringent realm of mid-20th-century compositions, where an inherent coarseness is oftentimes a prerequisite.

Within the concerto’s intricate fabric, a political subtext weaves a challenging narrative, a layer seldom within the grasp of a young cellist’s expression. Shostakovich, the consummate musical satirist, covertly wove strands of irony and sarcasm into his compositions—a poignant dissent against the oppressive shadow cast by Joseph Stalin, the murderous dictator who wielded not only political power but also an iron grip over the realm of musical composition. A notable example manifests in Shostakovich’s audacious appropriation of Stalin’s favored folk song, the Georgian lullaby “Suliko”, transmuted in the concerto into a mere three seconds of maniacal, dissonant disarray. Through purposeful utilization of chromaticism and dissonance, Shostakovich conjured an atmosphere rife with disquiet and tension—a sonic canvas demanding a cellist endowed with the capacity to articulate a somber worldview, a disposition in stark contrast to the effulgent and jovial demeanor of the youthful 24-year-old Sheku.

As the dawn of Sheku’s artistic journey unfurls, one cannot help but anticipate his growth and maturation. With the reservoir of life experiences that time inevitably bestows, Sheku is poised to ascend the ranks of illustrious cellists, carving a niche among the pantheon of musical luminaries.

The orchestra, conducted by the inimitable Gustavo Dudamel, adhered to the maestro’s signature aesthetic. Propelling forth formidable pillars of sound, maintaining tempi marked by swiftness, and adroitly furnishing robust support to complement Sheku’s artistry, the orchestra performed with distinction.

For an encore, Sheku joined seven LA Phil cellists to play the Bachianas Brasilerias Suite no. 1IIPreludio (Modinha) by Heitor Villa-Lobos.  It was scored for an “orchestra of cellos” and dedicated to cellist Pablo Casals. It is a uniquely beautiful piece which combines Baroque counterpoint and harmonic complexity with lush 19th century romanticism as well as evoking Brazilian and Portuguese folk song.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Ollie Ali)

The second half of the concert started with Villa-Lobos’s 14-minute 1934 symphonic poem Uirapuru, a rarely heard composition that seems to have been confined to Latin American concert halls. This opulent creation unfurls a sonorous tapestry, artfully weaving the tale of an enchanted bird, a masterpiece of orchestration that, while lacking direct evidence of influence on John Williams’ illustrious film scoring career, intriguingly features faint precursors to the iconic soundtracks of Star Wars and Jaws. Under the baton of the enthusiastic Dudamel, the orchestra breathed life into this piece, evoking a resplendent, lush soundscape. Of particular interest in this performance were some of the unique Brazilian instruments that complemented the usual orchestral ensemble–the Reco-Reco, an African-style percussive metallic scraper, the Tamborim, a round Brazilian frame drum, and the Violinophone, a violin-like instrument which amplifies its sound through an attached metal horn.

The program then culminated with The Firebird Suite in its 1919 iteration, one of three versions conceived by Igor Stravinsky (the others were done in 1911 and 1945). The Firebird holds the status of a cherished emblem within the LA Phil’s repertoire, emblematic of Stravinsky’s profound connection to Los Angeles, his home from 1940 to 1969—a span of time longer than any other city in his peripatetic life. Stravinsky’s enduring legacy not only resonates within the very DNA of the orchestra but, curiously enough, his influence played a role, even posthumously, in the realization of Disney Hall. Following a revelatory 1996 Stravinsky festival in Paris, jointly presented with Esa-Pekka Salonen, fundraising for the hitherto-stalled concert hall gathered renewed momentum. Salonen then inaugurated Disney Hall with Stravinsky in 2003, effectively bookending his 17-season tenure as the orchestra’s music director with the music of Stravinsky.

In Stravinsky’s own 1928 and 1929 recording of the ballet, there existed a pronounced emphasis on tonal austerity and a relentless rhythmic impetus, connecting Firebird to the seismic revolutionary force that would become Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) three years hence. As anticipated from the romanticist Dudamel, the orchestra’s rendering of the Firebird was a testament to Tchaikovskian opulence. Every nuance was savored, and speeds were measured. The overall effect was that of an immersive sensory experience characterized by an overwhelming atmospheric weight. Throughout the performance, moments of exquisite solo virtuosity emanated from all corners of the orchestra—principal wind players, the concertmaster Martin Chalifour, cellist Robert deMaine, and principal horn Andrew Bain, to name but a few.

The question that lingers in my mind, whether Dudamel’s interpretation of the Firebird is wrong to radically diverge from Stravinsky’s original intentions, is a matter of personal predilection. I do find myself highly entertained by Dudamel’s opulent sonority, whereas other critics may veer toward the austerity intended by the composer and championed by conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Although I may have some reservations concerning Sheku’s less-than-mature interpretation of the cello concerto, tonight’s program was an unequivocal triumph. Attending a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic is almost always an assurance of an evening’s entertainment at the highest echelons of artistic excellence.

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