By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist
Chavez: Toccata for Percussion; Lieberson: Neruda Songs; Bernstein: Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety
Thursday, April 22, 2010 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performance: Tonight at 8 p.m.
Gustavo Dudamel returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week amid very high stakes. He hasn’t been here since last November, but over the next month he will lead his first personally created festival, "America and Americans," and then will take the Phil on a cross-country tour. Excitement was at a fever pitch, as is usual with a Dudamel-led concert, and a full house in Walt Disney Concert Hall was on hand to greet the 29-year-old Venezuelan.
"America and Americans” reflects one of Dudamel’s passions: to expand the vision of the orchestra and its audience south of the U.S. border. Four of the pieces during the festival’s three orchestral concerts are by composers from Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela while three come from composers who are United States citizens.
Last night’s concert had some of both worlds, beginning with Carlos Chavez’s Toccata for Percussion. All you need to know about this piece’s difficulty is that composer John Cage asked Chavez to write it for a percussion ensemble with which he was touring the U.S. Chavez completed the Toccata in 1942 but Cage’s group couldn’t play the opening section. Chavez had to wait until 1948 to finally have it performed, by his own orchestra in Mexico City.
Six Philharmonic percussionists appeared to have no trouble, playing the 12-minute work with considerable flair and skill. The piece is divided into three parts: the first and last are for combinations of drums while the middle movement is scored for metallic instruments (chimes, bells, gongs, xylophone, glockenspiel) — it made for a tasty sandwich. The percussionists and their instruments were in their customary spots on the top level at the back of the stage; Dudamel conducted from the back edge of the stages’s floor level.
Prior to intermission, the Phil brought back Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs five years after Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra played the world premiere. The soloist at the time was mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s wife, who tragically died from cancer 14 months after that inaugural performance.
Peter Lieberson wrote the five love poems by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda specifically for his wife. It shows a lot of chutzpah for mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor to sing them now, but she did so with ravishing beauty and pathos, catching the flavor of each poem exquisitely. Her rendition of the final poem, “My love, if I die and you don’t — “ brought tears to more than a few people (including, I suspect, to the composer who was in the audience and came onstage for a well-deserved ovation).
One of the things that makes Neruda Songs special is that Lieberson interspersed lush, romantic orchestral moments with delicate, softer sections (the latter mostly when O’Connor sang). Dudamel managed the balances expertly, caressing the long lines with ardor, and the orchestra played elegantly throughout. It was, in a word, stunning.
Although Neruda Songs won a Grammy and a Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition in 2008, it didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2006, the year in which it was eligible. I’ve never heard Yehudi Wyner’s piano concerto Chiavi in Mano, which won the Pulitzer that year, but it had better be all-world and then some to have won out over Lieberson’s magnificent song cycle.
After intermission came Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety. For much of his life, Bernstein struggled to juggle his composing urges with his conducting career (he surely would have empathized with Salonen’s decision to leave as the L.A. Phil’s music director two years ago to concentrate on composing). Although Bernstein was building his conducting career in the 1940s, he tried to devote as much time as possible to composing; two of his three symphonies date from that decade, including Symphony No. 2 (the third didn’t appear until 1963).
Dudamel, whose conducting style has been compared often to Bernstein, obviously loves Lenny’s music. Dudamel’s performances of the West Side Story Dances were among his earliest calling cards and Mambo from that composition catapulted Dudamel and his Simón Bolivár Youth Symphony Orchestra to worldwide fame via a famous YouTube clip (LINK). Next year’s schedule includes Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) and Dudamel obviously thinks enough of Symphony No. 2 to take it on the Phil’s cross-country tour next month.
More than 60 years after its premiere, it’s still hard to know what to make of Symphony No. 2. Originally Bernstein believed listeners needed to have read W.H. Auden's poem, The Age of Anxiety, before hearing the symphony, but 20 years later he had abandoned that belief. He revised the work in 1965 to add a final solo section for the pianist. Today one wonders if the subtitle hurts more than it helps when it comes to 21st century audiences.
Although Bernstein called it a symphony, this work is really the piano concerto that he never composed. He played the solo part for the world premiere in 1949 by the Boston Symphony, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting — even Lenny wasn’t crazy enough to conduct it from the keyboard, although I’ll bet he thought about it.
Like much of Bernstein’s music, Symphony No. 2 is a pastiche of everything that came before 1949 and much that would come after, especially in his movie and stage music. The six movements of the 30-minute work are grouped into two parts; among its diverse elements are 14 variations, some snappy jazz, a 12-tone row, blues, and lush movie score-style, full-throated sections.
Both Dudamel and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet used scores during the performance; Thibaudet and his page-turner had a mighty battle keeping his score flat — a trip to a nearby FedEx Kinkos for spiral binding would definitely seem to be in order before tonight’s performance. As is nearly always the case, the French-born pianist, who now resides locally, melded formidable virtuosity and elegant musicality throughout the performance — it was a tour-de-force in every sense of that phrase.
Dudamel and the orchestra argued the most persuasive case possible for this eclectic work. The orchestra's playing in the rhythmic sections was razor-sharp in its precision, many principal soloists brought elegance to their moments in the spotlight, and the whole thing ended with a glorious homage to Aaron Copland by way of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
It speaks volumes about Dudamel’s commitment to Bernstein’s music that he not only programmed it for his first festival but is taking it on tour, as well. He and the orchestra will perform it in San Francisco, Nashville, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York City. If they play like last night, they’ll convert a lot of people to this somewhat neglected composer (at least in the symphonic realm).
You know that it must be tour time (shortly) when the orchestra offers an encore, in this case, the Waltz from Bernstein’s Divertimento, played fetchingly by the string section and conducted by Dudamel with nods, twitches, shoulder shrugs ... anything but a baton beat, which obviously wasn't needed.
Upcoming concerts in “Americas and Americans:”
• Saturday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.)
For a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos, Maria Guinand will conduct the performers that played the premiere in 2000: La Pasión Orchestra, the choral group Schola Cantorum of Venezuela and vocalist Luciana Souza. Soprano Jessica Rivera joins in this exuberant Latin-flavored setting of St. Mark’s gospel text. I heard it in Orange County several years ago — it was a knockout and should be even more so in Disney Hall’s marvelous acoustic.
• April 29, 30, 31 and May 1
Dudamel conducts the Philharmonic and Schola Cantorum of Venezuela in a program that includes a theatrical presentation of Antonio Estévez’s Cantata Criolla, along with Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia Dances and The Promise of Living from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.
• There’s also a reprise of Dudamel’s inaugural gala concert on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.: John Adams City Noir and Mahler’s Symphony No.1, both of which are on the upcoming tour schedule.
For more details on all these concerts, see my column of April 18 HERE
• Ironically, for a work on the fringe of the repertoire, Marin Alsop is in England conducting Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 with the London Philharmonic. A review from London's Financial Times is HERE. Another review from the London Times is HERE.
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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