(Revised) OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic offers two Requiems at Disney Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Leila Josefowicz,
violin; Christine Schffer, soprano, Matthias Goerne, baritone

Mackey: Beautiful
Passing;
Brahms: Ein Deutsche Requiem
(A German Requiem)

Thursday, May 12, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2
p.m.

Info: www.laphil.com

NOTE: The revision is an additional hemidemisemiquaver at the end.

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Sometimes it’s the big things you remember about a concert
performance. Other times it’s the little things. From last night’s performance
of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem (A
German Requiem)
by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master
Chorale, soprano Christine Schffer and baritone Matthias Goerne — all under
the inspired leadership of Gustavo Dudamel — it’s the little things that remain
etched in my memory.

 

Part of my reaction is because I know this piece inside out;
I’ve sung it many times and even played first movement when I was a double
bassist in high school. Thus, last night it wasn’t that the big things — e.g.
the wonderfully expressive singing of the Master Chorale and the orchestra’s
top-notch playing — weren’t noteworthy; they were, to be sure. It wasn’t even
Dudamel’s exquisite control of this 75-minute, seven-movement work. It was the
little things.

 

It was Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira setting up the
funeral-march dramatically at the opening 
of the second movement dramatically. It was way Goerne made eye contact
with the audience on three sides — terraces included — during his two solos
rather than singing just to those in front of him. It was Principal Oboist Ariana
Ghez slipping elegantly into the hushed choral singing midway through the final
movement. It was the graceful, understated way that Dudamel ended each of the
movements, even the three mighty fugues. It was the fact that, even though the
Brahms Requiem is a familiar piece, the audience held its collective breath for
15 seconds after the last note (a couple of sneezes notwithstanding) before
bursting into sustained applause.

 

The performance was part of the Phil’s “Brahms Unbound”
series that is concluding its 2010-2011 Disney Hall Season and, as was the case
last week with the first symphony, Dudamel offered a compelling account of A German Requiem. The orchestra, which
included three harps and the Disney Hall organ (which added impressive heft and
resonance) played beautifully. The Master Chorale sang the German texts with
great feeling, clean diction and burnished sound, sounding as fresh in the
final movement as it did in the first (not an easy task for a work where the
chorus sings in well over 90 percent of the time).

 

Dudamel, who conducted without a score, was in no hurry but almost
all of the tempos felt spot on; moreover, he never lost the work’s tension. He
took the fourth movement (How Lovely is
Thy Dwelling Place)
as a lyrical dance and the Master Chorale responded
with elegant grace. Dudamel began the sixth movement quite slowly but it was a
perfect lead-in to Goerne’s solo, in which we really felt he was, as the text
says, telling us a mystery. That led to the uplifting double fugue with its I
Corinthians text (the first place, as program annotator John Henken noted,
where the words “death” and “dead” appear in Brahms’ Requiem, and even then, as Henken writes, they
are “triumphantly reversed: the dead shall be raised and death swallowed up in
victory”).

 

Goerne sang his two solos powerfully and Schffer’s fifth
movement solo (You Who Are Sorrowful) was radiant. After the performance,
both turned and led the thunderous, and well-deserved, applause for the Master
Chorale (Dudamel stood to the side, allowing the soloists and LAMC Music
Director Grant Gershon to share the applause with the orchestra).

 

Dudamel elected to pair A
German Requiem
with a very different kind of requiem: Steven’s Mackey’s Beautiful Passing, which he wrote in
2008 following the death of his mother (the title refers to her final words:
“Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing”). The work, a 22-minute violin
concerto with two movements connected by a cadenza, was written for violinist
Leila Josefowicz and she was hand last night as the stellar soloist.

 

In the preconcert lecture, Mackey explained that the piece
juxtaposes the violin’s serenity with the jangling, clattery world, as
represented by an orchestra that includes a large battery of percussion
instruments plus the piano. Josefowicz, playing without a score, did have some
serene moments, including the beginning and conclusion, but most of Mackey’s
writing required all of her formidable technique. Interspersed in the
orchestra’s “jangling” sections were moments of lush string beauty. Dudamel
conducted and the orchestra handled the jagged rhythms seemingly with ease.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

The only time I looked at the projected supertitles was in
the sixth movement where I was perplexed by two translations of verses from I
Corinthians 15 : (a) victory instead of death — oops; (b) in Goerne’s solo, one
translation was, “I tell you a secret.” Several Biblical translations I own use
the word “mystery;” theologically, there’s a big difference.

In the preconcert lecture, Mackey — whose early background
included playing electric guitar in rock bands — said it took nine months to
write the concerto. He’s apparently a fastidious composer. “In a good year,” he
said, I write an average of one minute per week.”

In their reviews, Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) and Timothy Mangan in the Orange County Register (LINK) both noted that one of the orchestral themes in Beautiful Passing came from the tones made
by New Jersey Transit ticket machine. Mackey mentioned this cute point in the
preconcert lecture; I wrote it down and forgot to look at the note. Good on
them; my bad.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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