SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

On Halloween (Oct. 31) the Los Angeles Philharmonic knocked the socks off almost every one at Davies Hall with Tchaikovsky’s familiar Symphony No. 4, playing it like a true virtuoso orchestra and sounding like a European ensemble. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel’s melding with this group is total. And, in today’s era of strict tempos, he stretches tempi in heart-warming ritards and rubatos that were commonplace till about a century ago. He has pillowy-soft descents from brassy heights into wind-and-string valleys. The music sweeps along inexorably, carrying you along like a rushing river current. The slow movement featured a melting solo from oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, whom Dudamel later singled out for a solo bow.

My sole reservation about the interpretation is the sinewy brass-and-timpani assertiveness—welcome for the opening “Fate” theme,” yet overpowering later on. It reminded me of the memorable quote from composer-conductor Richard Strauss: “Never look encouragingly at the brass section.” (He also wrote tongue-in-cheek, Before the first downbeat, already the brass is too loud!) This stirring symphony is memorable for its finale, which sounds like yet another triumphal court scene added to a ballet like “Sleeping Beauty”—you can almost see the ballerina whirling onto the stage. And of course there’s the quoted beloved Russian tune every schoolkid there knows, “The Little Birch Tree.” Pure mother Russia!!

Andrew Norman’s demanding “Play” (2013) was as much a test of the orchestra as for the audience. The essence of the 40-minute opus was novel: The sound of the four percussionists acted like a switch, turning the rest of the orchestra on and off. This had the strings play at furious speed, with the brass punctuating at irregular times. You can imagine the percussionists’ delight at running the show from the often overlooked back rows, sounding out (with slapsticks, yet) to wake any patron dozing off. It’s a power trip, plain and simple, making implicit assertions about dictatorships and totalitarian leadership. Along the way the brass weighs in with potent gravity, and the trumpets form a sky-high sonic canopy over the proceedings. This switching is a somewhat limited concept for a work of such dimensions.

In his three sections (“levels”), composer Norman, 37, eventually takes a much more effective tack in a lengthy ultra-soft segment of aching beauty with a relaxed theme played out, each note performed by a different player. Dudamel conducted meticulously, achieving great articulation in the languid sections. (For those unhappy about writers’ frequent remarks on female performers’ appearances, some turnabout male-directed commentary: Dudamel has cut his mountainous explosion of hair that had marked his earlier appearances in the U.S.) For all his great gifts at producing near-silent orchestral magic, conductor Gustavo Dudamel also has a profound love for brass and timpani—loud, at times deafening-oppressive.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument. This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture. MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument.

This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture.

MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

 

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