New Yorker critic Alex Ross has called the LAPO the best orchestra in the country and that appellation seems about right.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LAPO) made a triumphant return to Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, courtesy of the Celebrity Series. New Yorker critic Alex Ross has called them the best orchestra in the country and, to judge from the program and performance the ensemble and music director Gustavo Dudamel presented, that appellation seems about right.
The evening began with the East Coast premiere of LAPO conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pollux. This is the latest in a series of pieces Salonen’s composed for the orchestra he led from 1992 to 2009 and, suffice it to say, he writes exceedingly well for his colleagues. The title references an early compositional problem: the work’s musical materials wanted to go in two directions, so Salonen split them into a pair of pieces named after the mythological twins, Castor and Pollux (the former’s score has yet to be written).
Pollux is a brooding – but not overly-dark – twelve-minute-long curtain raiser that traffics in devices familiar from Salonen’s recent work (Nyx and Karawane, especially), full of thick textures, folk-like melodies, and dazzling instrumental touches. The shadow of Sibelius is never too far off, from the involved melodic writing for low instruments at the beginning to the lurching violin arpeggios that pop up throughout the piece (recalling En saga a bit). And, in the score’s two big climaxes, Bruckner’s ghost intrudes in the rich brass scoring.
That said, there’s nothing derivative about Pollux. Even if, after one hearing, it doesn’t seem to be one of the composer’s major scores, Pollux is as agreeable and accessible as anything Salonen’s written to date. On Wednesday, Dudamel and the LAPO teased out its considerable reserves of lyricism while never stinting on color: the closing section, in particular, with piano and harp gently accompanying a dolorous English horn solo, was pure magic.
After the Salonen came Edgard Varèse’s Amériques. And, good as Pollux was, this is where things really took off.
The Paris-born Varèse settled in New York in 1915. Six years later he completed Amériques as a kind of tribute to the urban juggernaut that was his adopted hometown. Leopold Stokowski led the premiere of the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926. Revised in 1927 (the updated score cuts down, among other things, the number of percussionists from thirteen to nine), it remains much-talked-about but infrequently-played (James Levine led the only Boston Symphony performances of Amériques in 2005).
While that’s understandable, given Amériques’ massive requirements, the case Dudamel made for the score on Wednesday was compelling.
Much of the discussion surrounding Amériques inevitably focuses on the decibel levels it generates. Considering that it calls for, among other things, a Lion’s Roar (a type of string drum) and a police siren, that makes a good deal of sense. But it’s not all discordant noise – as magnificent and deafening as many of the apogees the LAPO produced on Wednesday night were.
No, Amériques is filled with much subtle, often touching, melodic writing. You get this right off the bat, with an opening alto flute tune that sounds like it’s cribbed from the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Other solos crop up throughout the piece: a bassoon lick that owes a debt (or two) to the “Danse sacrale” from The Rite of Spring; trombone glissandos that could be straight of Gershwin, and so forth.
Those moments stood out in Wednesday’s reading, always carefully shaped and delicately balanced. Indeed, Amériques’ songful character was often on display: Varèse’s writing for brass and strings around the work’s ten-minute mark was sonorously etched; the exotic-sounding woodwind melody five-or-so minutes before the end was, likewise, beautifully (and characterfully) delineated.
Throughout, Dudamel drew a performance of sweeping momentum from his band. Amériques’ several sections flowed in and out of one another with remarkable fluency: they were successive paragraphs in a single chapter, rather than separate chapters in a book, as can sometimes be the case. And no section of the enormous orchestra ever dominated another, which was a remarkable demonstration of technical control from the conductor. The final chord was ear-splitting. It was matched, impressively, by an equally ferocious ovation.
The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that followed Amériques after intermission seemed modest by comparison.
That’s not to say it was poorly done. Quite the opposite. Dudamel’s Shostakovich made for a welcome contrast to Andris Nelsons’ recent (excellent) account of the piece with the Boston Symphony.
There were similarities between the two young conductors’ respective interpretations, to be sure: the devotional intensity of the third movement, with its allusions to Orthodox chant, were powerfully realized, as was the finale’s blistering opening section.
But there were notable differences, too. Dudamel tended to exaggerate dynamic phrasings more in the second and fourth movements. His take on the finale channeled Mahler to a greater extent, especially in the brass chorale that anchors that movement’s central section. And his reading of the opening movement never let up in terms of drive (which made for a rather breathless first movement apex).
The audience’s response to it all was thunderous.
Eventually, Dudamel and the LAPO rewarded them with an encore of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. After the fury of the Shostakovich and Varèse, this was something very different in tone and style: an essay in pure melody, played with the same passion and fervor (not to mention perfect equilibrium between the orchestra’s many voices) as those more recent scores.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.