Music Review: SIBELIUS AND SWAN LAKE (LA Phil; Hilary Hahn, violinist; Alpesh Chauhan, conductor)

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by Nick McCall on October 23, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

Yesterday at Walt Disney Concert Hall conductor Alpesh Chauhan, making his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut, began with Saad Haddad’s new piece, Aysheen (عايشين), or “living” in Arabic, an LA Phil commission which received its first performances over the weekend.

Aysheen begins with the bass drum thumping a soft heartbeat, soon joined by droning cellos and basses, Rhinegold-style. A promising enough start, but then the brass started blowing air through their horns. Years of new music at LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series have conditioned me to receive blown air as a harbinger of incoming musical asparagus. Each time, I tense up, but force myself to think, “Maybe this time a new short piece will turn into a magnificent tone poem. Surely, this time will be different.” It never is. Then, on cue, the rest of the strings joined in with noisy chaos. (Check out Aysheen‘s demo below.)

Eventually, the chaos gave way to something like cohesion and harmony, but then it returned even worse than before. The bass and cellos maintained a stable undercurrent, but the remainder of the orchestra sounded like they were warming up. They could have played the exact same noodling as when I was getting into my seat and it would have sounded no different. The contrast with the bass line is an interesting idea, but by that point, I was over it. I have friends who dismiss Richard Wagner’s music as noise. They have no clue what noise is.

Up next was Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, by Jean Sibelius, offered by one of the world’s great violinists, Hilary Hahn, dressed in a an exquisitely sheened black-and-gold gown, who played the fiendish piece expertly, intensely and passionately — she achieved this by avoiding sudden extremes in mood and tempi. Her arcs were smoother and longer, allowing the musical ideas room to breathe, to evolve naturally from one to another. There are broadly two approaches to the Sibelius Violin Concerto: It can be approached as a “virtuoso with a big ego” showpiece or as a fine early example of music by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest composers of orchestral music. Hahn’s Sibelius was strong and powerful and unashamedly of the latter school. There was no flashy playing, nor was she going for mystery or subtle nuance, but hers was an account that was powerful and, just as important, was perfectly paced. Ms Hahn’s reading was intensely brooding and contemplative in the first movement, wonderfully melodic in the second, and naturally rhapsodic in the third. She was not just a performer here; she belongs to that upper echelon populated by those who give listeners something amazing and unforgettable. Under Chauhan’s impeccable direction; the orchestral playing was rhythmically taught and richly detailed.

After a roaring ovation, Hahn followed the concerto with Through My Mother’s Eyes, a depiction of a child’s fighting inevitable slumber and then a lullaby written for Hahn by classical saxophonist and composer Steven Banks, a lovely little wind-down piece which she premiered earlier this year in Chicago.

The second half of the program was selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a work that Chauhan and the orchestra clearly loved playing. This ballet suite is endlessly inventive musically and packed with great melodic ideas, fantastic orchestration and, of course, wonderful tunes. The performance placed a high premium on deep-piled sonority, the phrasing replete with elegance and grace. Clarinetist Burt Hara, concertmaster Martin Chalifour and, especially, harpist Emmanuel Ceysson took full advantage of their juicy solo opportunities, with that long, dream-inducing, exquisite harp solo a highlight of the night. The “Neapolitan Dance” received particularly affectionate treatment in the hands of Chauhan, who showed more of his own podium personality here, bringing out the strings with tempo and panache. After the first half of the program — and its thoughtful and professional restraint — it was a relief to hear the orchestra finally let loose and play full-blast.

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Hilary Hahn, violinist; Alpesh Chauhan, conductor
played October 20-22, 2023
for more events, visit LA Phil

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Don Lefkowitz October 29, 2023 at 7:04 pm

I attended the Friday morning concert and totally enjoyed Hilary Hahn’s interpretation of the Sibelius concerto. I’ve seen HH perform several times live and can attest to her humility and her joy in performing. The Swan Lake portion of the program was engaging and fun both for the audience and seemingly for the orchestra. I totally agree with you that Aysheem sounded like a little bit of music sandwiched between annoying noise. So many organizations seem to feel compelled to add at least one very dissonant piece to every program which has caused me to be very selective in choosing concerts to attend. Thank you for your review! Don


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