OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil open subscription season with blockbuster concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Lieberson/Knussen: Shing Kham (Pedro Carneiro, percussion); Schubert Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Yefim Bronfman, piano)
Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

For most orchestras, first subscription concerts are a major event, complete with the high hopes attendant with the opening of a new season. In some cities — e.g., Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — the luster is dimmed a bit by an opening gala concert but not completely. Usually the galas are light-hearted affairs designed to lure major donors with easy-listening music and a party afterwards. The heavyweight fare comes with the first subscription concerts, which in L.A. usually includes a blockbuster piece to close the concert and, often, a premiere.

Although last Monday’s L.A. Phil gala was an unusually serious program for such an event, this weekend’s opening subscription concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall follow the familiar pattern. Gustavo Dudamel, beginning his fifth season as the Phil’s music director, offered a program that concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed with equal parts musicality and ferocity by Yefim Bronfman, Dudamel and his brilliantly playing band.

There was, however, a touch of nostalgia to the world premiere of Shing Kham, the final piece written by Peter Lieberson before he passed away in 2011 at the age of 64 from complications of lymphoma. What was going to be a three-movement, 25-minute percussion concerto written for Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro became instead an unfinished single movement of about 10 minutes that was later “realized” by English composer Oliver Knussen partly from Lieberson’s sketches and partly from Knusses’s and Carneiro’s best guess as to how Lieberson would have finished the movement.

You might expect a product to be a mishmash, but actually the result was a somewhat episodic set of mini-movements that was, nonetheless, fascinating from start to finish. There were measures of driving intensity, interspersed with jazzy sections, lyrical moments and a final flourish that sounded like vintage Leonard Bernstein.

As is often the case with a percussion concerto, watching Carneiro maneuver around an array of instruments was part of the attraction. The list included a marimba, snare drum, 12 tom toms (six of which were wood), bass drum, four suspended cymbals and a triangle — the last was the only instrument that Carneiro brought with him from Portugal; he also brought the two dozen or so mallets that he used in the performance, often holding two in each hand. The array was lined up to the right of the podium.

The work also called for some heavy-duty work from six percussionists in the orchestra, so another part of the interest came from the interplay between Carneiro and the orchestra (in the program note, Carneiro said, “Every step of the way I need to connect with every single player in the orchestra.”) The stylish performance received a respectful semi-standing ovation from the Friday-night crowd.

After intermission came the blockbuster. Many pianists come determined to show all of their formidable technique in Tchaikovsky’s famous work. Bronfman, instead, chose to probe the work’s musicality first; in the process, of course, he also displayed plenty of musical chops but that’s not surprising for those who have heard him play during the past quarter-century.

Given that I’ve heard this concerto played live at least 50 times and who knows many times in recordings of various formats, I was surprised and pleased how involved I became last night.

This was a big-boned performance both by Bronfman and the orchestra (this is, after all, Tchaikovsky, not Mozart). Bronfman probably missed a note or two somewhere but not so as you would notice. Dudamel had the trumpets and trombones on the top tier with nobody on the level below them, so they were ultra-bold but not strident in their opening measures and beyond. Dudamel, who conducted without a score, shaped phrases expertly; the buildup to the descending octaves that herald the first cadenza, for example, was gripping. That subtle phrasing meant that the “attack” chords, particularly in the first and second movements, really jumped out.

The second movement unfolded without haste, even in the second section. Bronfman studied with Rudolf Serkin at The Curtis Institute and in this performance was channeling Serkin’s elegant playing. The third movement was fast but not perilously so, until the final climactic measures when all hell broke loose from everyone.

I don’t think I’ve every heard this concerto conclude when a standing ovation didn’t occur but for once, this one was eminently deserved. After several curtain calls came an encore. Many pianists would offer something delicate or playful as a contrast to the concerto; not “Fima,” as he is known to many; he alternately powered through and toyed with what someone in the audience said later was a Paganini Caprice.

Before intermission, Dudamel and Co. offered an elegant, refined, albeit large-scaled performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor. This was one of a torrent of works that Schubert wrote during the years 1815 and 1816 when he was still a teenager; he later appended the moniker “Tragic” to the title. According to Brian Newbould, Schubert’s output during those months included more than 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra including nine church works a symphony, and about 140 songs.

The long first movement last night (it takes up about 40% of the piece) and the second movement, with its wonderfully Schubertian song tune, featured luxuriant strings interplaying with the winds; I was again reminded how well Disney Hall allows inner voices to be heard. The third movement, with what Lucinda Carver noted in her preconcert lecture is a meter similar to Beethoven’s fourth symphony, allowed Dudamel a chance to dance but he never overdid it. The final movement was a blaze of majestic glory.

• Bronfman was either exhibiting a dry sense of humor or twitting Carver in the preconcert lecture. Carver, who is a well-known pianist, conductor and teacher, characterized Bronfman’s sound as unique and asked how he did it. “With my hands,” he deadpanned. Later she described a report that Tchaikovsky made changes to the concerto after Nikolai Rubinstein originally excoriated it. When Carver asked Bronfman what changes were made, he said, “Nothing important.”
• Carneiro said that he almost never travels with instruments because they’re too hard to ship. He does bring his mallets but other than that, he assembles instruments from the place he is going to perform. He did bring a small triangle to Los Angeles because he thought Lieberson would have particularly liked the sound.
• The Phil rearranged the play order at the last minute (the original called for the Schubert first, followed by Shing Kam. The array of solo instruments was probably easier to take down than set up and the changeover took only about five minutes, although one of the stage crew nearly knocked over the snare drum before adroitly catching it on the way down.
• I’m not sure whether Bronfman played the encore Thursday night (Mark Swed’s review in the L.A. Times today doesn’t indicate — I was hoping to get a confirmation of the title, which Bronfman did not identify).
• The program note on Shing Kam is HERE.
• This program is part of the 10th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Details on upcoming concerts are HERE.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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