Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an impassioned program of symphonies by Corigliano and Tchaikovsky for Celebrity Series of Boston in Symphony Hall Sunday.
For a time I was privileged to call the Los Angeles Philharmonic my hometown band. This was during the Esa-Pekka Salonen reign, and I have very fond memories of concerts at both Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. I remember the tight ensemble playing, the thrilling commitment the entire orchestra brought to the performances, and the daring programming.
I had seen Gustavo Dudamel previously, conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. Conducting Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps from memory might seem like a cool party trick, but not then; Dudamel had complete mastery over the score and the ensemble, and threw cues with elbows as well as hands. He danced the music on the stage. (I wonder what Diaghilev would have made of the performance?)
So I approached Sunday’s concert with high expectations, eager to see what the five-year relationship between the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Dudamel had produced. My expectations were blown away. The orchestra remains a skilled and tight ensemble able to make beautiful music rich in shading and timbre, to change character on a dime and remain in deep communication with one another at all times, and well-versed in bringing to life the intricacies of contemporary compositions. Dudamel conducting does not have the economy of Salonen, but both are masters of their game and their group; Dudamel conducted clearly, interacted with all the musicians on the stage at any given time, and excelled at phrasing, shaping, connecting lines across sections and parts to blend these voices into exciting and holistic performances.
The concert opened with John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (1988). Calling for a very large ensemble including a full complement of winds, a large battery of percussion, musicians offstage, and four mandolins, this is a dense and thorny composition. Corigliano characterized himself as a reluctant symphonist who was motivated by viewing the AIDS Quilt and turned to this “comparably epic form,” a forty minute symphony, to “memorialize in music those I had lost [to AIDS], and reflect on those I was losing.” This is a complex musical work which calls on instrumental mastery and extended technique in several instances; from the violin part I spied on music stands, the notation seems equally complex. Musically the idiom is removed from the composer’s Red Violin music or his various choral works that are heard more frequently. This symphony is a powerful and haunting composition drawing on musical traditions and history in interesting and nuanced ways to craft a compelling musical narrative. This is also one of the strongest musical depictions of confusion, uncertainty, and despair that I know.
In four movements (although in performance it feels like three, with the Epilogue continuing on from the Chaconne: Giulio’s Song), the work opens with Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance. From the outset the music captures the passion, the anger, and the confusion of the early years of the AIDS crisis. An insistent “A” (tunings, beginnings; yet also intense waves of sound) is interrupted by a percussive thwack. The literality of this painting—the thunderstruck upheaval, the definitive mark of the disease, on lives and communities—does not obviate the emotional power of this gesture in performance. This opening movement continues with melodies new and borrowed, the tissue of inter-musical allusions referencing those Corigliano lost and most noticeable in the inclusion of Albéniz’s Tango performed on offstage piano (that music a particular favorite of the composer’s friend). Born along the Argentina-Uruguay border over a century ago as a dance of political protest, the form has travelled and changed considerably; the inclusion of Albéniz’ melody here is wistful, poignant, and also a reminder of the low-key, or suffused, anger which can burnish memories and fuel political movements. The second movement, Tarantella, traces the composer’s friend, a music executive and amateur pianist, during his descent into AIDS-related dementia; Corigliano wrote, “The ending can only be described as a brutal scream.” Here the musical idea of a dance remained foremost, with precision but also a great sense of flexibility: the composer’s expansion of the genre to bear and encode new meanings, but also the hope for cures, the repeated dashing of those hopes, and various efforts (ultimately futile) towards medical intervention, all now rendered in music, mesh with the underlying early history of this dance form. From the melodic and the abrupt, we embark on the Chaconne, memorializing a college friend of the composer, Giulio, an amateur cellist. Here there is a substantial lyric/melodic line for solo cello (Giulio) and moments of a cello duet (Giulio’s teacher). Robert deMaine, former principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony who left that position in the wake of that group’s recent labor dispute and since 2013 has been principal cellist in Los Angeles, took the lead; Ben Hong, Assistant Principal Cello who has played with the ensemble since 1993 (and Jamie Foxx’s cello teacher as he prepared for the film “The Soloist”) took the second solo line. These cellists gave a fabulously nuanced and sensitive reading that brought to life the haunting, the ethereal, beauty of this music. The symphony ended with an intense and reflective silence before the cheers and accolades began—which included the composer coming to the stage for his own series of bows. Even Yo-Yo Ma (this time in the hall, after packing it for his own recent performance reviewed here) stood and expressed his warm enthusiasm for the work of deMaine and Hong.
Following intermission Dudamel returned to lead the L. A. Phil, from memory, in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, op. 64 (1888). Running some forty-seven minutes this composition, written a century before Corigliano’s, is also a testament to a musician grappling with fate and the emotions fraught upon reflections upon this facet of the human condition. According to Tchaikovsky, the subject is “murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against ***” (the exact meaning of his asterisks being much-debated); both symphonies on this program share in laments and reproaches, yet both work through their respective narratives in different ways and idioms. The first movement, Andante – Allegro con anima, proceeded with weight and depth, keeping a constant sense of direction. In the Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza, the sense of movement never came at the cost of tone; here I really noticed the stellar performers at the top of their game. The Valse: Allegro moderato maintained the dance character even as the music shifted within this already expansive form. The Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace opened with the lush sound of the amassed strings, giving a majesty to the maestoso; throughout this movement Dudamel kept the militaristic march manifest. The musicians gave a powerful presentation of this canonical work.
The crowd embraced the musicians and recalled the conductor to the podium until, at long last, we were graced with our encore: Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. I most certainly hope it is not another thirty-four years before the Los Angeles Philharmonic returns to Boston.
As I checked facts and spelling for this review, this news headline caught my eye, and it might explain the delay in Dudamel’s return to the stage following intermission. In terms of the performance, I did not observe any effects of the flu during Sunday’s concert. While grateful for the concert, I can only conclude that Dudamel’s consummate professionalism kept the show going.