OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic and “Glorious Percussion” 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, Glorious
Percussion
ensemble

Gubaidulina: Glorious Percussion; Brahms’ Symphony
No. 2

Thursday, May 19, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances: Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at
2 p.m.

(NOTE: Tonight is a “Casual Friday” concert. The concerto
will not be performed; the program will be Brahms: Academic Festival Overture and Symphony No. 2.)

Info: www.laphil.com

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When Gustavo Dudamel first encountered Russian composer
Sofia Gubaidulina’s concerto, Glorious Percussion, in
Sept. 2008 as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony, he surveyed the
humungous battery of percussion instruments surrounding the podium and thought
to himself, “Oh my God! This is going to be loud!” He was right — the concerto
was loud (in spots). It also lived up to its title.

 

For the U.S. premiere of this 35-minute piece, played by
Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night at Walt Disney Concert
Hall, the five soloists and their instruments sprawled over the front half of
the stage with the orchestra crammed behind them. Dudamel looked like he was
negotiating a maze finding his way to the podium — he was, in more ways than
one.

 

The nearly invisible maestro was surrounded by the
following: wood blocks, glass chimes, bamboo chimes, cabaza, hand drums,
darabuka, bass drums, crotales, xylophones, marimbas, flexatones, triangles,
suspended cymbals, drums, tambourine, agogo, and Javanese gongs. By my count,
that added up to seven keyboard-type instruments, nine different drums and more
than three dozen assorted gongs, cymbals and other instruments … and that
didn’t include the timpani, wood blocks, sleigh bells, drum, bass drum,
cymbals, suspended cymbal and tam-tam, played by members of the Phil at the
back of the orchestra.

 

Playing this dizzying array of instruments were three
Scandinavian percussionists — Andres Loquin, Anders Haag and Eirik Raude — plus
Mika Takehara from Japan and Robyn Schulkowsky, who was born in the U.S. and
now lives in Germany. They came together for the world premiere three years ago,
followed that up with several performances in Germany and Switzerland, and this
season are playing the work with the Netherlands and Helsinki Philharmonics.
They liked each other enough to coalesce as an ensemble and appropriate the
concerto’s title as their group’s name.

 

Just watching them move carefully but gracefully from one
instrument to another without either knocking anything over or stumbling was
fascinating. So was their playing: sometimes individually, sometimes all five
playing together on three or four of the keyboard-type instruments, and once in
a cadenza-like riff on the large drums on the very front of the stage. Their
virtuosity on whatever instruments they happened to be beating, plucking,
shaking, waving, rattling or bowing was stunning. This is one piece that you have
to be in the hall to appreciate.

 

All of this was, indeed, glorious percussion; whether it was
glorious music is a matter of taste. Gubaidulina’s — a youthful-looking 79 years of age — has a Tartar father and a Slavic mother
and her music reflects that Europe/Asia background. Many consider her one of
the great, albeit somewhat unknown, composers of her generation. What was most
fascinating (to me) about this score on a first hearing was how she managed to
connect sonically the various percussion instruments with the sections of the
orchestra; sometimes it was hard to hear where one began and the other took
over.

 

The orchestra — heavy on brass, light on woodwinds, with a
large complement of strings plus two harps and celesta — had moments of
lightness and others of ponderous gravity; I kept waiting for Bydlo (the oxcart
from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an
Exhibition)
to appear on stage. Three times the orchestra comes to a
complete halt and the soloists take over for short virtuosic cadenzas.

 

In his program note, John Henken wrote: “You do not have to
be able to parse the ‘agreement of the sounding intervals with their difference
tones’ to appreciate the distinctive spectral sheen on Gubaidulina’s chords, or
identify the difference between a darabuka (Middle Eastern goblet drum) and an
agogo (Yoruban single or double bells) to revel in the colors she produces from
the percussion array.” Right on, John, and a good thing, too. Glorious Percussion was a lot to absorb
in one hearing but the audience took it in stride and responded with a huge
ovation, both for the performers and for the composer who came onstage to
accept the plaudits.

 

After intermission, Dudamel and Co. tackled Brahms’ Symphony
No. 2. If you were one of those kvetching about “The Dude’s” luxuriant tempos
in the first symphony two weeks ago, then you had to be thrilled with his
brash, in-you-face concept of the second. Others may not have been quite so
enamored.

 

Last night sounded like an young man was in charge. Dudamel
enforced brisk tempos, particularly in the two outer movements — this was one
of the fastest performances of the second that I can remember — and he
continues to emphasize extremes in dynamics. The orchestra — perhaps still
recovering from the sonic onslaught of the concerto — seemed edgy at first with
a tone that was less mellow than one might have expected from this so-called “Pastoral
Symphony.” However, by the final movement, the players were locked into Dudamel
and their rhythmic precision — even at the breathless tempos — was impressive
to the max.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

To a festival beset by several scheduling changes, add
another this week: the originally scheduled Tragic
Overture
was cancelled due to what the Phil says was “the stage setup
requirements for the percussion ensemble in Glorious Percussion.” In retrospect, the move made eminent sense although,
considering Dudamel’s previous experience with the concerto, one wonders why
the decision took until virtually the last minute to make.

The decision left a short-ish program for tonight’s “Casual
Friday” concert so Brahms’ Academic
Festival Overture
has been added to the Symphony No. 2 for this performance
only.

In his preconcert lecture, composer/conductor Russell
Steinberg said almost nothing about the concerto, apart from reading portions
of Henken’s program note. Steinberg admitted that he hadn’t heard the piece. You’d
think that, knowing his assignment, Steinberg might have made it to a
rehearsal. Instead, he focused on the Brahms. Perhaps Saturday and Sunday will
be different.

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