Sunday, November 22, 2009

Music in Los Angeles

TWO CONCERTS HEARD last Saturday in the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have given me much to think about. We were particularly eager to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mozart: he's a known quantity with contemporary music and with big colorful Romantic works, but what would his Mozart be like? The occasion was an intriguing concert on the regular season: the "Prague" and "Jupiter" symphonies (nos. 38 and 41) flanking Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, Gil Shaham the soloist.

It turns out that Dudamel's as fine a conductor of Mozart as of anything else. He seated first and second violins opposite one another, as is certainly right with this repertory, and reduced the strings to 14-12-10-8-6. He took all the repeats and moderated the tempi. He made the music serious, quite serious, minimizing interpretation, clarifying the scores. The "Prague" symphony revealed its essentially operatic, expressive quality, connecting to Don Giovanni and, even more, Le Nozze di Figaro; the "Jupiter" emerged on the other hand as the abstract, architectural masterpiece it is, enjoying its counterpoint as decorative line while revealing it even more as structural fabric.

We sat above and behind the first violin section, slightly skewing the aural perspective but getting a fine view of Dudamel's address to his orchestra — his face as well as his stick technique. For a young man (28) he's remarkably mature, completely assured, yet engaging. In so many ways he makes me realize orchestral music, all the standard Eurocentric concert music, has moved into a new era. There seems to be a relaxed, egalitarian relationship between him and his band (and his scores, for that matter): the work is done jointly; conductor and instrumentalists commit equally to the effort.

There were occasional problems resulting from this: first bassoon tends to rush his quick patter in the "Prague"; upper winds reveal occasional uncertainty as to the precise location of a downbeat. But I only noticed such things four or five times in the entire program; and they were more than offset by the beautifully precise tuning of octaves, the fine balance of dynamics.

The Berg concerto was remarkably detailed. Berg's orchestration always works on paper, but rarely in the hall; he's a sort of 20th-century Schumann in that respect; conductors must study the intent his scores reveal and guide their musicians in rehearsal to a clear expression of the details that make up Berg's complex, sometimes weighty, but always lucid music. Here Dudamel absolutely triumphed: you felt your ears were hearing the printed score as well as the delicious sounds. (Shaham seemed to me a perfect collaborator, playing effortlessly, dramatically, authoritatively, leaving nothing further to be desired.)

What the program finally amounted to was a perfect coupling of Berg and Mozart. Both composers emerged as living, breathing, important, humane, utterly contemporary creators of music that is significant, affecting, brilliant, and intelligent.
Saturday night we attended quite a different affair, the opening concert of the LA Phil's "West Coast, Left Coast" festival of, well, west-coast new music. The Kronos Quartet opened the late-night concert (it began at 9:30) with a suite of three pieces whose titles were unstipulated in the program booklet.

Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, who perform as Matmos, followed, presenting a loose but steady stream of electronically processed sounds, as often from amplified physical objects as from synthesizers. Suzie Katayama then led a string-and-guitar ensemble through a three- or four-movement piece by Michael Einziger; and then Terry Riley joined Kronos and Matmos in what seemed a group improvisation grounded on a notated structure.

The long evening ended with Riley's solo improvisations at the keyboard of the fine Disney Hall pipe organ, a magnificent instrument. Singing occasionally, Riley moved effortlessly through a global range of musical expression, from blues and barrelhouse to Indian ragas. I had been discouraged by the music that preceded him: it seemed thin, routine, graceless, dutiful. Matmos, for example, seems to repeat mechanically and joylessly the kinds of sounds John Cage and David Tudor found so much more expressive, witty, and graceful in Cage's Variations series, forty years ago.

Riley, though, brings the spirituality, intelligence, and sensuousness of that period right down to the present, because of course he was there. He did in his own performance at that organ just what Dudamel had done with Mozart and Berg, found a way to project everything that's human and humane in music, while casting aside all the merely theoretical and historical and routine.
Dudamel has taken Los Angeles by storm, and tickets to his concerts are extremely hard to come by. I'm grateful to the Los Angeles Philharmonic for providing our seats to his concert.


John Whiting said...

Had dinner two nights ago with David Robertson, an old friend and colleague from his Royal Academy days as a 20-year-old student. Though older than Dudamel, he too belongs to the egalitarian generation of conductors, of which Simon Rattle was a charter member. It was fascinating watching his conducting of Boulez' memorial piece for Maderna, in which he just folded his arms for the even-numbered movements and let the musicians get on with it. Left to themselves, they played with the same extraordinary lyricism with which David had imbued the entire piece. Perhaps a conductor's real job is to make himself dispensable.

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