OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere Shostakovich’s “Orango”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Shostakovich: Prelude to Orango;
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

Friday, December 2, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Information: www.laphil.com

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The “sine qua non” of Ben & Jerry’s, the wildly popular
ice cream company based in Waterbury, Vermont, is known as the “Vermonster.” A
bucket contains 20 scoops of ice cream, a fudge brownie, four bananas, three
cookies, four toppings, four ladles of hot fudge, whipped cream and
marshmallows. Believe it or not, many people actually try to eat the whole
thing! That’s what I felt I had done after last night’s Los Angeles
Philharmonic concert. At least 110 minutes of Shostakovich didn’t come with the
“Vermonster’s” 14,000 calories and 500 grams of fat.

 

The impetus for this weekend’s gorge is the world premiere
of the Prologue to Orango, which
Shostakovich wrote in a few days midway between composing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in
1932. To get a detailed account of the story, click HERE. The short version is
that the prologue was to have preceded three acts of this political-satire
about a half-human, half-ape, but the only thing Shostakovich finished was a
piano-vocal score of the prologue, and that lay undiscovered in the Glinka
Museum in Moscow until it was discovered by Dr. Olga Digonskaya in 2004.

 

Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow (who was in the
audience last night), commissioned British composer-writer Gerard McBurney to
orchestrate the Prologue’s sketches. The L.A. Phil, Esa-Pekka Salonen — its
former music director and now conductor laureate — and director Peter Sellars
eagerly signed on to present the first performances this weekend.

 

McBurney actually had more to work with than just the
piano-vocal score. Pressed for time, Shostakovich used the overture and the
ending to his ballet The Bolt to open
and close the Prologue and also included snippets from some of his other
compositions. “That,” said McBurney in the preconcert lecture, “provided a
template for the rest.” McBurney (who curates an ongoing series entitled
“Beyond the Score” for the Chicago Symphony) explained that he immersed himself
in every note that Shostakovich wrote during the 1930s time frame, especially
Shostakovich’s 12 music-theater scores. “What I hope,” he said, “is that this
is an approximation of what Shostakovich would have written.”

 

“Approximation” is a reasonable description. What McBurney
delivered is a mostly loud, mostly furious account of what Shostakovich might
have envisioned for his political satire (including what McBurney termed “an
outrageous parody of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4″). What it lacked was the
dark, sardonic wit that showed up later in the evening during the fourth
symphony. Nevertheless, while it was only an approximation of Shostakovich, it
was madcap — and marvelous — McBurney.

 

Last night’s production (for which Ben Zamora supplied
atmospheric lighting) used 10 soloists (four of whom come from the 24 singers
of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). Sellars planted the soloists throughout
Disney Hall (Jordan Bisch, whose booming basso was the first voice heard, began
in the Orchestra East seats) and those involved both sang and acted their roles
with power and exuberance (only one was overpowered by the gigantic orchestra.
Ryan McKinny served as The Entertainer (envision Joel Grey in Cabaret) and did a fine job of playing
to all four sides of the hall. Eugene Brancovenau was Orango, Michael Fabiano
was the zoologist, and Yulia von Doren was Susanna.

 

Sellars, being Sellars, wasn’t
content to let the music and performers stand on their own; the same thing
happened with the premiere of El Nino, John
Adams’ nativity opera. For Orango, Sellars
leapt at the concept of political satire like a wolf devouring a lamb chop,
projecting a dizzyingly rapid series of still images that juxtaposed “Occupy”
protesters, B-1 bombers, U.S. military and Pentagon personnel, tract houses
atomic bomb blasts, etc. — over and over and over again. If the idea was to get
you eventually to mostly ignore the images and concentrate on the music, I
suppose it was successful. Otherwise, I felt like I had undergone sensory
overload at the end of the 45 minutes.

 

Ironically, the most affecting
imagery came in the quietest moments: the black and white video images of a
ballerina performing while the orchestra played a “Dance of Peace.” The
Prologue’s ending seemed to arrive so suddenly as to leave the audience
befuddled, but the applause for all concerned was almost as deafening as the
music.

 

Salonen conducted the piece with
slashing flair and the orchestra — which revels in Shostakovich’s music –
played the Prologue superbly, treating it as if the piece was an old friend,
rather than something they were performing for the first time.

 

This is one of those works that needs to be seen and heard
several times to fully appreciate. In his program note, McBurney concluded by
calling the Prologue “a ghost from a lost era, the work of a young composer of
the utmost energy and brilliance, not yet cast down by history, ill-health, and
politics. …” It’s also a premiere that might not have happened without the
unique combination of McBurney, Salonen, Sellars and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic and for that, we should all be grateful.

 

According to Sellars, it was Salonen who elected to pair Orango with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.
4, and in many respects that decision made eminent sense. (To cite one example,
both pieces are in the key of C — major for Orango,
minor for the symphony.) However, the fourth is one of the thorniest of
Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, not least because of its construction: two
movements of nearly half an hour each surrounding a 10-minute middle section.
The composer also employed the largest orchestra for any of his symphonies: 20
woodwinds, 17 brass, two harps, celesta, double timpani, along with a plethora
of percussion instruments and full strings.

 

Shostakovich was writing the symphony in 1935 when he fell
afoul of the Soviet authorities over Lady
Macbeth of the Mtensk District
and withdrew the symphony on the eve of its
first performance in Leningrad. It would take 25 years for its first
performance (on Dec. 30, 1961 by the Moscow
Philharmonic Orchestra
led by Kyrill Kondrashin).
Although one of the work’s ardent early champions was Otto Klemperer, then LAPO
music director, the symphony didn’t make it to Los Angeles until 1989 when
Andr Previn conducted it.

 

Salonen conducted the piece last night with an insightful
sense of its overall architecture, bringing out all of the brooding, sardonic
nature was lacking in Orango. As it
had during Orango, the orchestra
played splendidly, tossing off the treacherous rhythmic sections of the first
and last movements as if they were child’s play. Among the soloists, Principal
Bassoonist Whitney Crocket stood out. At the conclusion, Salonen looked
ecstatic and exhausted. Ditto for this listener.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

The preconcert lecture (with Digonskaya, McBurney, Sellars
and Laurel E. Fay, author of Shostakovich:
A Life
and the Symphony No. 4 program note) was informative but — like Orango — delivered what was almost a
surfeit of information. Sellars’ passion for the music in both pieces was
riveting.

A couple of items not in the program notes came out in the
lecture. Dr. Digonskaya said that when she stumbled across the manuscript
(which is 13 large sheets of paper crammed full of small notations), there were
no identifying marks as to its composer. However, she knew Shostakovich’s
handwriting and, by analyzing the paper and ink, knew that it was something
from the 1930s. Thus began what she and McBurney termed a detective story
worthy of Sherlock Holmes or an archaeological search.

The Phil printed the text translations in the program in
addition to the projected supertitles. Ask not why.

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

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