Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Bearable Lightness of Being

October 10, 2009

Unsuk Chin, Gustavo Dudamel and Wu Wei with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

After the well-dressed melée of Thursday’s Los Angeles Philharmonic gala season opener, Friday’s first regular concert of the season felt far less agitated and pressured. Which was a good thing. With the excitement level down a couple of notches, new music director Gustavo Dudamel relaxed a little in the performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, which he and the orchestra are reprising throughout the weekend. While still lacking a sense of maturity and cohesiveness, the performance was less arduous to listen to. The playing could still be a little too scrappy at times, but it was far more palatable.

Frankly, though, the Mahler was secondary in more than just a programming sense considering the evening also featured the American premiere of a Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission from Unsuk Chin, entitled Su (pronounced shu). It’s a concerto in one movement for orchestra and sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, played here by a modern master of the instrument, Wu Wei. This was one of those quintessential moments for the Los Angeles Philhamonic – a premiere from a major contemporary composer of Korean descent featuring the skills and musical traditions of China joined by the most European of musical institutions, the symphony. Add to this the Venezuelan-born conductor at the head of the orchestra and you pretty much have the definition of multicultural.

It was a very exciting piece that dealt with space and sound produced over a distance. Su refers to an Egyptian symbol denoting air and the piece can be fragile in many ways. The initially continuous rumble of the sheng is met by similar sustained tones in the orchestra both on stage and in a smaller ensemble placed in the rear terrace of the hall. Over the twenty some minutes this pattern is repeatedly broken down and reconstituted amidst percussive elements. Wu Wei became a flurry at times producing sounds as equally percussive as anything from the rear of the stage. It was fascinating to watch and one of those eerily beautiful things. However, Chin, who has not traditionally highlighted non-Western musical elements in her compositions as compared to someone like Tan Dun or Osvaldo Golijov, strictly avoids making the piece an “exotic” showcase of the musical Other. The sheng is the centerpiece of the work, but not in a way that marginalizes it. Instead Chin treats it as a contemporary equal in the dialog of sounds.

Su was the best thing the Philharmonic has played in the last two weeks of Dudamel-led concerts, but I'm not sure how much its success belonged to Chin and Wu Wei over any involvement from the conductor. I did have some underlying unease about the performance in that I often felt that the orchestra, who is the best in the world at working with contemporary music, was often doing the heavy lifting in the conductor/orchestra dynamic here. Dudamel seemed to dutifully follow along as if the L.A. Philharmonic had whipped up this dish for his plate on this opening weekend, which he ate because it was expected of him. He certainly didn't meet the task with the enthusiasm he brought to the Mahler. Which is certainly his right. But I can’t help to wonder what things may come. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s international reputation so assiduously developed over the last two decades has been based in large part on their unparalleled stance as the leading performance organization of 20th-century and contemporary music. Outlets like The Gramophone don’t lavish praise on our local band for their touring performances of Mahler, Strauss, and Beethoven.

And who knows? That may change. While I think it’s completely reasonable for the focus of the orchestra's programming to change under new leadership, it would seem that losing their strong-suit may not best serve the orchestra overall. If the L.A. Philharmonic intends to maintain a focus on and reputation for contemporary music, it's going to need a stronger advocate for the work than Dudamel appears to be at this point. He is picking up on it, though, by bringing aboard John Adams in a new advisory role. The big question mark is how much of what's working very well do you have to lose to grow in other areas. We're about to find out.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?



Opera Reviews '10-'11

Opera Reviews '09-'10

Opera Reviews '06-'09

L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


Follow Along


Los Angeles

Follow me on Twitter