By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Ravel: Daphnis and
Chloe, Suite No. 2, Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Friday, October 14, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next concert: Tonight at 8 p.m. (includes Claude Vivier’s Orion).
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic learned Wednesday that Yefim
Bronfman had fractured his finger during a recital the evening before in
Berkeley, the Phil was in a pickle less than 36 hours before the first of Bronfman’s
three scheduled performances as soloist in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Unlike, for example, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto or Beethoven’s Emperor, there aren’t a lot of pianists
who have the Bartok ready to jump into a performance at almost-literally a
Instead, the orchestra turned to a tried-and-true favorite:
Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2, which
it had performed less than two months before at Hollywood Bowl. The choice was
also logical because Dudamel will be conducting the suite in Zurich, Milan and
Rome during a tour next month with his Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of
Familiar or not, it was an impressive feat for the Phil
musicians to knock the rust off the Ravel in time for this weekend’s
performances. As Anne Marie Gabriele, the orchestra’s second oboist who
introduced last night’s “Casual Friday” concert, noted wryly, “It’s been quite
a week.” When the Phil introduced the “Casual Friday” concept, the playing was
occasionally as casual as the attire; no longer. Combined with the previously
scheduled Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, last night was an evening of sonic
splendor, splendidly rendered.
While the lush music from Daphis and Chloe has been an orchestral favorite from the
beginning, the ballet for which it was written has never achieved the score’s
success. Ravel had been commissioned by Serge Diaghilev to write a work for his
newly formed Ballets Russes but,
according to Herbert Glass’ program note, Ravel and choreographer Michel
Folkine clashed repeatedly during the ballet’s gestation.
“Ravel first mentioned Daphnis
in a letter to his friend Madame de Saint-Marceaux in June of 1909,” writes
Glass: “I must tell you that I’ve had a really insane week: preparation of a
ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3
a.m. What particularly complicates matters is that Fokine doesn’t know a word
of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. Even with interpreters
around you can imagine how chaotic our meetings are.”
As things turned out, the ballet’s premiere came in 1912
(delayed many times due to the wrangling). It was interjected into the stream
of Stravinsky’s three landmark ballets: The
Firebird in 1910, Petrushka (1911)
and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913). (Ironically,
the 1919 Firebird suite is on the
agenda for the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s performance Tuesday night at the
Valley Performing Arts Center — LINK).
Dudamel conducted the complete Daphnis and Chloe score in 2008 before he officially became the
Phil’s music director. To my ears, the complete suite is too much and the
suites are preferable (others disagree, as is their right). What we got last
night was 15 minutes of sumptuous sound, spun out in an unhurried manner in the
first two movements before Dudamel let loose in the finale.
The entire night
turned the spotlights on the Phil’s wind section, with Principal Flutist David
Buck shining brightest in his second movement solo in the Ravel. Despite its accelerated
tempos, the final movement was fully in control, with Ravel’s saucy flourishes blaring
out like an organist stepping on a swell pedal. Considering the minimal
rehearsal time, the orchestra’s rhythmic precision was truly impressive.
While the Ravel was a last-minute change, the work with
which it was paired — Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 — was always designed as the
evening’s conclusion, despite the fact that it had also been performed in
August at the Bowl. Of course when the Phil slated the 5th, it had
no idea that the piece would be played four times within a two-week period in
Southern California but that’s the way things have turned out (LINK).
What makes these performances special for Dudamel and the
Phil is that it was with this symphony that the then-24-year-old Dudamel made
his American debut at Hollywood Bowl in 2005 (LINK). I wasn’t on hand then and didn’t attend Thursday night’s
performance by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in Costa Mesa, so I came to last
night’s performance with no preconceptions or comparisons to make. None were
necessary — this was a magnificently played performance that in Dudamel’s hands
proved to be revelatory.
While many conductors emphasize the deeply brooding nature
of this work, Dudamel scrubbed the surfaces clean, like an old master painting
restored. Unlike his somewhat off-the-wall concept of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony
No. 6 that caused such a snit with some East Coast critics in 2010, last night
was a mainstream reading when it came to tempos.
That doesn’t mean it was ordinary; far from it. Conducting
without a score (as was the case with the Ravel), Dudamel lovingly shaped every
phrase — indeed, seemingly every note — from first measure to last. As he often
does to begin 19th century romantic pieces, Dudamel took the first
movement luxuriantly. The second was sensual, the waltz-like third movment elegant
(predictably, Dudamel danced his way through it), and the finale marched forward
briskly, then finished in a presto blaze of glory.
However, what really set this performance apart was the way
Dudamel emphasized the wind sections. When most people think of Tchaikovsky’s
fifth, they remember the brass and strings and both sections were in top form
last night: the brass gleaming and the strings delivering a bright tone.
However, to Dudamel’s ears, this piece’s focal point is the winds; of course,
it helps when the orchestra’s winds can rise fully to the occasion as did the
Phil musicians last night, beginning with the lovely, elegiac clarinet solos
from Michelle Zukovsky and Lorin Levee that opened the performance.
Among many moments, what remains etched in my memory was
that point in the second movement when, after the horn solo (played with loving
tenderness by the orchestra’s new principal horn, Andrew Bain), the tune is
passed subtly, almost imperceptibly to Zukovsky, Principal Oboist Ariana Ghez
and Principal Bassoon Whitney Crockett. That plus the movement’s final wistful
notes were pure magic and yet another example of Disney Hall’s wonderful
Unless you have an absolutely pressing engagement, grab
yourself a ticket for tonight’s final performance. As a bonus, you’ll get to
hear Orion by French-Canadian
composer Claude Vivier, which wasn’t played last night (my colleague Mark Swed
heard it in dress rehearsal and said he was sorry we were missing it).
In his preconcert lecture, Eric Bromberger called Thursday
night’s concert “the finest performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth I’ve ever heard …
and I’ve heard plenty!” Among other talents, Bromberger is a violinist who has
played with the La Jolla Symphony since 1980.
As he did last week with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, Dudamel barely paused
between the first and second and the third and fourth movements of the symphony
last night. He also avoided what Bromberger called the Tchaikovsky “Trap” —
that break before the coda — by making the pause so slight as to prevent any
premature applause. If he were sure of his audience, he might have allowed more
space, but in this case (one reason for “Casual Friday” concerts is to
introduce newcomers to classical music), the brevity made eminent sense.
If you haven’t had your fill of the Daphnis and Chloe suite, the Boston Symphony is scheduled to
perform it on Dec. 10 at Disney Hall (LINK).
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.