OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Tovey, L.A. Phil dazzle in Shostakovich’s 5th, “Songs of the Paradise Saloon”

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

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Bramwel Tovey, conductor
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. (includes Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Information: www.laphil.com

As a professional music critic, I try not to write reviews based on comparisons with other performances I’ve heard. It would be disingenuous to say that I don’t recall them; that wouldn’t be human nature and, indeed, there are a double handful of performances that are seminal in my musical life. Nonetheless, I try to take each performance as I hear it, on its own merits or lack thereof.

Having said all of that, I cannot remember a more stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 than I heard played by Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, nor can I imagine the Phil playing any better period. This one goes in my double handful!

From the first notes, it was obvious that Tovey had his own take on this towering, 45-minute piece written in 1937 when the composer was in the midst of one of his battles with the Soviet Union government bureaucracy and, specifically with Joseph Stalin.

Moreover, this was one of those performances when the orchestra seemed at one with the conductor, both making this performance a living, breathing organism. I’ve seen this happen between the Phil and Gustavo Dudamel but rarely with other conductors; last night, happily, was one of those times.

I could toss out kudos to every player but must single out the Phil’s new principal flute, Julien Beaudiment. When Tovey waded into the orchestra to acknowledge principals, Beaudiment’s hand was the first he shook, and with good reason. Throughout the piece, his playing was deeply soulful with a gorgeous tone.

Others to note were Marion Arthur Kuszyk, oboe, Principal Clarinet Michele Zukovsky, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, and the entire brass section. More than individuals, however, were the sound and precise execution of each section in the orchestra: strings, winds, brass, piano, harp and percussion.

As the Largo movement unfolded majestically, I was reminded of Howard Posner’s program note (which, interestingly, is not the one posted online). Posner wrote, “The Largo had much of the audience in tears. It does not tend to have the same effect on us because we do not hear echoes of Russian funeral music in its melodies, and we have not experienced the devastating upheaval that they lived with.” Perhaps not, but as the final hypnotic notes died away, I could appreciate why those first Russian audiences wept; the effect last night was deeply moving (thanks, also, to Disney Hall’s marvelous acoustics).

Tovey immediately launched into the fourth movement, taken at an imperial, majestic tempo, before cutting the orchestra loose in frenzy. As he did throughout the performance, Tovey layered the levels of sound perfectly in this movement (kudos, again, to the brass) and the final measures, taken in as slow a tempo as I have ever heard, were riveting, the final tympani and bass drum blows ringing out as canon shots. The audience, predictably, went bonkers.

All of this, ironically, eclipsed the Los Angeles premiere of Tovey’s own Songs of the Paradise Saloon (in a hilarious talk before the performance, Tovey looked back at the score and joked that he can never remember whether it’s Songs of the Paradise Saloon or Songs from the Paradise Saloon.)

Either way, the piece — which grew out of Tovey’s opera, The Inventor — proved to be a jazzy, jaunty look at a New York City bar (Tovey, ever the Brit, called it a “pub”). In truth, it’s really a trumpet concerto, written for Toronto Symphony Orchestra Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless.

Last night, British trumpeter Alison Balsom — this year’s Gramophone “Artist of the Year” —gave a bravura performance of the piece, which is essentially a theme and 12 variations, all of which last about 25 minutes. The variations proved to be fascinating and Balsom seemed to sail effortlessly through everything, displaying a golden tone throughout the performance as she played at various times on two trumpets and a flugelhorn.

Tovey and the orchestra accompanied her with impressive sensitivity, not always easy because at some spots — especially when she put a mute into her trumpet — Balsom’s sound was barely audible. The interplay between Balsom and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and between Balsom and Principal Cellist Robert DeMaine were particularly noteworthy.

This is a piece I would love to hear again, although my wife thought it sounded crazy. I pointed out that’s exactly the scene that the music was written to convey.

• The concerts tonight and tomorrow afternoon include a performance of Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was omitted last night in the “Casual Friday” format.
• Based on last night’s crowd, there should be plenty of tickets available for tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Grab one!

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