The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra with its superstar music director Gustavo Dudamel brought three works written in the last 100 years to Symphony Hall Wednesday. The Celebrity Series show, comprising the East Coast premiere of Pollux, written in 2018 by Music Director Emeritus Esa-Pekka Salonen; Edgard Varèse’s Amériques in its 1927 revision; and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47 of 1937, gave ample opportunity for the Philharmonic to show off its technical prowess and thrilling, dramatic sound, but the spectacular moments failed signify.
Dudamel bounded onto the stage and took his place in front of a very large ensemble with his customary flamboyance and enviable hair, though there are now strands of silver among his thick black curls.
Of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pollux, the Philharmonic’s former music director wrote that he was working on compositions evolving in two distinct and incompatible directions, and decided to split the work into two sections, named Pollux and Castor (not yet completed), for the Gemini twins of Greco-Roman mythology. He drew inspiration from the rhythmic pattern of a bass line in a song played by a post-grunge band that he heard in a Paris restaurant, and from a chorale based on the opening lines of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus. I couldn’t make out a post-grunge rhythmic pattern or a chorale tune; the work began with a rocking, undulating figure played on strings and celesta or xylophone. A restless dialogue between various wind soloists followed, and a slow steady crescendo then ensued. As the music got louder, it turned into an overwhelming wall of sound, suggesting individual players were not relenting or responding to what other sections were doing. This blurred the composition’s rich variety of motifs, phrases, and details, and led to difficulties in following the musical argument. The deafening finish drew generous plaudits.
Amériques, the oldest work on the program, and perhaps the strangest and most avant-garde, was the first work that Edward Varèse completed after moving to New York City from the Berlin of Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg. It opens with an atmospheric duet between alto flute and bassoon, but then a series of increasingly chaotic outbursts evokes the often-unsettling hustle and bustle of a large American city. The work calls for a massive percussion section, using crow calls, boat whistles, and fire engine sirens (think of it as Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun … in the Urban Jungle”). The fire engine siren’s whining cry drew some amused laughter from the audience, and the orchestra showed some startling technical chops. The string players were asked to play in one section in harmonics, in which they lightly draw their bows over the strings to get only the overtones, a musical high-wire act that can be difficult to keep in tune even for one player. All of the strings played with remarkable control, attaining an eerie, whispery effect. There was also remarkably controlled muted brass, with a high trumpet solo played beautifully by Los Angeles Philharmonic principal Thomas Hooten. But once again, the orchestra gradually moved into a sonic-overload mode, obliterating fine details. The sonically spectacular moments failed to add up to a coherent statement (for comparison, try Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra [HERE], who never spirals out of control and always showed direction and purpose in his recording).
In his Fifth Symphony Shostakovich’s first composition after a number of his more modernist-inflected works ran afoul of Joseph Stalin, the composer appealed in a less complicated, more direct way to large audiences; it remains one of his most popular works, and appears to be dear to Dudamel, as he led the orchestra without a score. There were many moments of very fine playing. I made note of the bracing unanimity and arresting tone of three different string sections (at one point cellos, first violins, and violas; at another the first and second violins and violas) with two sections echoing the first movement’s unsettling opening figure and a third section floating a plaintive, desolate melody over them. Shostakovich’s unorthodox instrumental combinations, like clarinet and contrabassoon, or strings and xylophone, can be difficult to pull off, because the timbers and overtones of the instruments don’t lend well to blending together smoothly, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic pulled off each of the unusual pairings beautifully. In the second movement, Dudamel led a grotesque but still danceable waltz, with a deliciously sardonic solo from concertmaster Martin Chalifour. The string pizzicato sound near the end took on a lovely bloom and audible layering of textures over a growling double bassoon. The slow movement had a smoldering slow build in loudness and intensity from the opening plaintive lament (though once it reached a loud dynamic, the movement lost some of its focus and direction). The final movement ran at a fairly fast, aggressive tempo, with a nice ebb and flow to the dynamics with striking contrast of timpani against brass and wind chords. However, towards the climactic end, the dynamic shot past triple fortissimo, perhaps even augmented (did Dudamel add a bass drum to the pounding timpani at the end?). This earned cascades of uproarious applause from the Symphony Hall audience, though it left me feeling a little flat. In reviews of Shostakovich symphonies with the BSO (most notably) [HERE], I have suggested that music on a Shostakovichian epic scale needs well-developed narrative and flow, and falls apart when it merely unfolds as string of thrilling episodes. The many wonderful individual moments in Dudamel’s account with the Los Angeles Philharmonic didn’t add up.
The audience clearly felt differently, and applauded enthusiastically enough to draw an encore: the Liebestod that concludes Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This was the most successful performance of the evening, with that same slow-burn build of sound and passion, culminating in an ecstatic but still manageable climax and ending with exquisitely tuned overtone-rich chords.
This concert appears to have opened a tour in which Dudamel will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Washington DC, New York, London, and Paris. In addition to this program, they will be playing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and a program of new music in London on May 3. The Celebrity Series returns with a recital by soprano Julia Bullock in Pickman Hall at the Longy School on Wednesday, May 2nd.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.