Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Everybody's All-American

January 31, 2009

Hilary Hahn, Leonard Slatkin, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

I’ll admit it. I have a hard time getting excited about Leonard Slatkin. In my mind he’s in that Robert Spano category, someone who seems to have all the attributes and interests you would want in a conductor, but somehow missing that excitement factor. Maybe it’s my own bias against all things quintessentially American, and maybe its just that familiarity breeds contempt. But I will say, with shows like this weekend’s LA Philharmonic program, I might just change my mind. The program was a jumble of unrelated works, all played with real commitment and attention. After Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture – a likely sop to audience members who must have one piece they recognize in every program- came the main course, the Glazunov violin concerto. It’s not much of a concerto, in that the orchestra has virtually nothing to do and the solo writing is dramatic and romantic if not overly flashy. Hilary Hahn was the soloist and it must be said that she spun straw into gold. Hahn wrenched more passion and thought out of this 20-minute piece just by sheer intensity and force of will than I would have thought possible. She’s remarkable, and I hope she wins one of those Grammys next week for her Schoenberg vionlin concerto recording.

The second half of the show was completely unrelated to the first. It began with a really good run through of Steven Stucky’s Son et lumière. Slatkin concluded the piece by noting that Stucky and John Adams have become virtually a “household names” at least in musical circles in this town. By way of introduction to the final piece, William Schuman's Symphony No. 3, Slatkin noted that a prior generation of American composers, including Schuman and the likes of Roger Sessions, are largely fading from American stages despite the important connection between early 20th-century American music and their late 20th-century descendants. Schuman’s Symphony No. 3 was offered here as an introduction to this important time in American classical music. The work, which I was previously unfamiliar with, is not bogged down in folk idioms in the way many composers earlier in the century had been, like Copland. And while there is something "American" about it, I would not describe it as being evocative of particular cultural milleu in the way one thinks of Gershwin. The influence on later generations is also clear, although Schuman, like his contemporaries, was interested in maintaining a European heritage of Symphonic music that has largely gone by the way side in recent decades. It was a fine performance and well deserved, all thanks to the L.A. Phil and Leonard Slatkin.


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