By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Friday, September 30, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next concerts: tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m.
The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Philharmonic season, which opened
last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, is easily the most ambitious set of
programs in Gustavo Dudamel’s three-year tenure as the orchestra’s music
director and is quite likely the most wide-ranging repertoire for any United
This weekend’s performances of Argentine composer Esteban
Benzecry’s Rituales Amerindios is one
of four U.S. premieres for the season, along with seven world premieres and
five west coast first-time performances. Nine of the works on the season are
L.A. Phil commissions. And that doesn’t take into account the complete cycle of
Mahler symphonies, with Dudamel leading both the Phil and his Simn Bolivr
Symphony Orchestra for a month early next year in Los Angeles and then on tour
in Caracas, or the beginning of the orchestra’s cycle of the Mozart/Da Ponte
opera trilogy later in 2012.
Last night, after opening with John Adams’s fanfare in name
only, Tromba lontana — notable for
having trumpeters Tom Hooten and Christopher Still hiding amid Frank Gehry’s “overturned
French fries” wooden pipes surrounding the organ loft — Benzecry’s 25-minute,
three-movement tone poem got the list of premieres off to a rousing start.
In brief introductory remarks, Dudamel lauded the
41-year-old composer (who was born in Portugal and lives in Paris) as being
able to create “an amazing atmosphere of moods and colors,” a description that
was right on. Rituales Amerindios
(Amerindian Rituals) is an important piece, another example of Dudamel’s
vision — articulated when he was hired — to broaden the orchestra’s (and
audience’s) musical framework to all of the Americas.
Written in 2008 on a commission from the Gothenburg Symphony
Orchestra (the third ensemble that Dudamel heads) and dedicated to the
conductor, Rituales Amerindios
focuses on the roots, rhythms and mythology of three pre-Columbian
Latin-American cultures: Aztec (in Mexico), Maya (southern Mexico) and Inca
(Peru and other Andean countries).
Along the way, Benzecry manages to achieve a myriad of
amazing sounds using only standard orchestra instruments, thus creating some
magical effects. One example: during the first movement, Ehcatl – an Aztec wind god — Benzecry manages to conjure a violent
storm without using a wind machine as Richard Strauss did in his Alpine Symphony.
The second movement, Chaac
– a Mayan water god — sounded like a Latin American version of Debussy’s La Mer with a forest containing some of
Messiaen’s birds added into the mix.
The final movement — Illapa
(an Incan thunder god) used the Phil’s percussionists — Joseph Pereira,
timpanist, along with Raynor Carroll, Perry Dreiman, Alexander Frederick and Nicholas
Stoup — who hammered, rattled, rang, and otherwise manipulated an impressive the
array of percussion instruments (glockenspiel, bass drum, suspended cymbals,
bongos, metal wind chimes, rainstick, claves, tam-tams, vibraslap, guiro,
maracas, grelots, bamboo wind chimes, mark tree, wood blocks, water gong,
slapstick, marimba, tom-toms, vibraphone, and congas) plus Joanne Pearce Martin
on piano, celesta and Lou Anne Neil on harp — to create not only massive waves
of thunder and lightning but also lead the way in a riotous conclusion of
Dudamel conducted confidently (although he did use a score)
and the orchestra — as it usually does with Latin American fare — played the
piece as if they were born to it. The audience responded exuberantly,
particularly for the composer who was in the audience and participated in the
preconcert lecture, as well.
Hector Berlioz was the first significant composer to create
thematic tone poems, using instruments to create an amazing palette of colorful
sounds, so concluding this weekend’s concerts with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique made eminent
sense. Perhaps appropriately, since the work is an autobiographical setting of
the composer hallucinating, Dudamel’s concept was schizophrenic with moments of
sublime beauty interspersed with a totally haywire ending.
The Phil’s management goes all out for performances of this
55-minute sprawl, employing four harpist for a relatively few minutes of
playing in the second movement, four timpanists (playing on two sets of
timpani), along two gigantic bells for the Dies
Irae portion of the final movement that look like scions of the Liberty
Bell (minus the crack, of course) and make enough noise to wake the dead.
Last night, Dudamel opened the first movement, Reveries:Passions, in unhurried luxury,
jumped (literally) feet first into the pulsating middle section, and brought
the final cadences down to a rich, mellow conclusion. The ball scene emphasized
elegance. The third movement — Scene in
the Country – featured moments of supreme magic, particularly in the
plaintive English horn solos from Carolyn Hove and the wistful echoing oboist,
Marion Arthur Kuszyk, offstage at the rear of the hall.
To Dudamel’s mind, the March
to the Scaffold is a doom-laden affair, while the final movement, Dream of a Witches Sabbath, becomes a
raucous celebration of evil (overshadowed by those massive bells, of course).
For about 50 minutes, it was a riveting performance. Unfortunately, Dudamel
raced so quickly in the final measures to the end that ensemble precision got
jettisoned overboard. Nonetheless, the evening fully lived up to the
description from Asadour Santourian in the preconcert lecture: “Starts
nocturnally, journeys to Latin America, ends in hell.”
The preconcert lecture by Santrourian, artistic advisor
and administrator of the Aspen Music Festival and School, is worth hearing, in
part because Benzecry showed up to deliver his thoughts on Rituales Amerindios. Since the composer struggles with English,
were I in charge I might have had him talk in Spanish and have someone on hand
to translate, if for no other reason than to make him feel more comfortable.
Five of the Phil’s new members are spotlighted in the
printed program: Principal Horn Andrew Bain from Australia; Lyndon Johnston
Taylor, who rejoins the orchestra as principal second violinist after serving
for four years as assistant concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony; Nathan
Cole, first associate concertmaster, who actually began this summer at
Hollywood Bowl, and his wife, Akiko Tarumoto, who returns to the orchestra as a
second violinist (both had been with the Chicago Symphony); and Michael Myers,
who joins the trumpet section.
As noted in my review of Tuesday’s gala concert (LINK),
Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony, is filling in this
month while Donald Green is on sabbatical and Daniel Rothmuller is back this
season serving as associate principal cellist emeritus.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.