OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Phil, Johannes Moser and his “e-cello” at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Johannes Moser, electric cello

Adams: Short Ride on a
Fast Machine;
Chapela: Magnetar,
Concerto for Electric Cello

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major

Friday, March 4, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: October 28 and 29 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 30 at 2
p.m. (Mozart and Richard Strauss)

Information: www.laphil.com

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The last few years have seen a spate of classical music compositions
for electronically amplified instruments. I suppose it began in 2003 with John
Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, which
featured an amplified violin and was one of the works that help open Walt
Disney Concert Hall. Earlier this fall came Derek Bermel’s Ritornello (for electric guitar and orchestra), which opened the
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-2012 season (LINK).

This weekend, the Phil got back in the game with the world
premiere of Magnetar, Concerto for
Electric Cello
by 37-year-old Mexican composer-guitarist Enrico Chapela, a
considerably heftier work (at 25 minutes) than Bermel’s 14-minute baroque-like
ditty.

 

What is an electronic cello (e-cello, for short)? The
instrument looks like the shell of a cello — there’s a standard bridge,
fingerboard and tail and the framework is shaped like a cello — but there’s no
wood on the front or back to provide resonance (as he introduced the piece last
night, Gustavo Dudamel called it a “ghost cello”). The sounds are created
through two pickups (one is under the bridge) hooked up to a computer system that
pours the sound out through two large amplifiers surrounding the soloist.

 

As Johannes Moser noted in last night’s preconcert lecture,
he’s playing the instrument but the sounds are totally generated by the sound
system (the computer is controlled by Esteban Chapela, the composer’s nephew). “After
spending 20 years producing the sound from next to my belly,” said Moser, “it
was really hard getting used to ‘outsourcing’ the sound.” Aside from bowing and
fingering, Moser also uses two foot pedals to control volume and the “waa-waa”
sounds that often show up during the piece. “I feel like an organist using both
my hands and feet,” said Moser. “That took some getting used to.”

 

The concerto has three movement, which the composer terms “fast,”
“slow” and “brutal.” The title of the work refers to a rare type of pulsars in
space, which have gigantic magnetic fields that explode out of cosmic noise
(represented at the beginning and end of the first movement by the orchestra
players rubbing their hands together and later stomping their feet rapidly).

 

Throughout the piece, Chapela provides massive, periodic bursts
of sound to further illustrate the theme. A lot of that sounds comes from a
massive percussion section that included crotales, tubular bells, vibratone,
suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tom-toms, bass drum, vibraphone, spring drum,
tambourine, snare drums and timpani.

 

There were moments when the “e-cello” sounded simply like an
amplified guitar, but there were also times, including in a cadenza that
separated the first and second movement, when it produced lots of squeaks,
scratches, other assorted sounds and noise, although I’m not sure you could
call it music.

 

Fortunately, the second movement featured a haunting, bluesy
jazz motif and dueling “waa-waas” between the ecello and various instruments (including
trumpet and timpani) that, for me at any rate, became the highlight of the
piece.

 

The “brutal” third movement was just that in terms of its
speed and complexity, both for the orchestra and the soloist. Moser and the
percussion led the way to a splashy conclusion that brought forth a big ovation
for all concerned, including the composer. Dudamel bobbed, weaved and danced
his way through the accompaniment and — especially considering how little time
it ad to prepare the piece — the orchestra was remarkably precise and
expressive in its playing.

 

Prior to the performance, Moser introduced Magnetar by saying, “Chapela writes
music for now; he doesn’t care what it might sound like 50 years from now.”
Judging the reaction from the large number of younger people (as well as older ones) in the audience,
what he wrote for the “now” was exceedingly popular. Both the composer and his
father, who was one of the dedicatees, were in the audience.

 

The entire night was a showcase for percussion beginning
with John Adams’ four-minute 1986 fanfare, Short
Ride in a Fast Machine.
To no one’s great surprise, the orchestra played it
with exuberance and impeccable rhythmic precision. However, what struck me the
most was how Adams has grown in his compositional style since those minimalist
days of 25 years ago. It would have been instructive to hear Short Ride paired with, for example, City Noir, the work with which Dudamel
opened his Disney Hall tenure as LAPO music director three years ago, if for no
other reason than to hear the stylistic differences.

 

The evening concluded with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, which
like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad),
was composed in the crucible of World War II. However, unlike
Shostakovich’s work — which was written about and during the siege of what is
now known as St. Petersburg — Prokofiev’s 5th was composed in the
summer of 1944, shortly after the D-Day landings, and by the time it was premiered
in January 1945, the conflict’s end was in sight.

 

While it’s the most popular of Prokofiev’s symphonies, the
fifth isn’t really a mainstream work, although Dudamel and the orchestra did
their best to argue a persuasive case for its inclusion. Dudamel reverted to
having all the violins seated to his left with the violas outside on the right
and the string basses next to the violas stretching to the rear of the ensemble,
which helped to accentuate the rich, resonant string tones that poured out all
night, beginning with the first movement, which Dudamel took at a magisterial
pace.

 

The scherzo leaned
heavily on the sardonic tune that bounces from section to section. The brooding
adagio, which was highlighted by
sparkling solo work from Principal Clarinet Lorin Levee, led without pause to
the finale, which concludes with the sort of whiz-bang finish guaranteed to
send the crowd home happy. However, since this program is being played Sunday
at Davies Hall in San Francisco, Dudamel and Co. offered a gentle rendition of
Prokofiev’s Gavotte from his Classical Symphony as an encore.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

The Phil’s two-day appearance up north is part of the San
Francisco Symphony’s centennial celebration; the Phil is the first of several visiting
American orchestras that will be appearing during upcoming months. Monday’s
concert is a repeat of the season-opening Disney Hall concert earlier this
month: Adams’ Tromba Iontana, Esteban
Benzecry’s Rtuales Amerindios, and
Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique (Review
LINK)

If you’re interested in reading more about Magnetar and the electric cello (the instrument was created by Yamaha), the
program notes are HERE.

Tao Ni was principal cellist for last night’s concert
(he’ll also play Sunday night in San Francisco). According to a LAPO
spokesperson, he is taking part in an audition for the orchestra’s vacant
associate principal position.

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

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