Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A City of Two Tales

November 28, 2009

Dudamel hugs Marino Formenti under the watchful eye of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

This weekend brings one of those programs that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has built its reputation on over the last decade. And while it was a close approximation of the glory of the not too distant past, it paled in comparison to what many of us had come to love about our hometown orchestra. The program consisted of three works all composed within the last thirty years, two by living composers and all three written in California. The occasion was the Philharmonic’s “West Coast, Left Coast” festival which examines the influence of California on classical music and is curated by composer, and LA Philharmonic “creative chair," John Adams. And while it's debatable whether the planned programs over the next three weeks will come anywhere close to doing what it aspires to, it is a great excuse to program some wonderful if not commonly performed works.

The highlight of the evening was the Lou Harrison piano concerto, which incorporates alternate tuning methods for the piano into its performance. It can be both jarring and quite lovely as it careens through four movements sometimes with intricate finesse and at others with forearms and palms slapping against the piano keys. The soloist was the superb Marino Formenti who has become a favorite with L.A. audiences for his particular mastery of difficult contemporary fare. His performances of Messiaen here were one of the highlights of last year and he was equally good on this occasion. Surrounding the Harrison piece were two competing attractions both concerning Los Angeles. The more substantial of the two was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations and the lesser was the recent commission from John Adams, City Noir which first appeared at the gala season opener for the L.A. Philharmonic this fall. When I first heard the Adams work I wasn’t terribly impressed and little has changed. It is still very reminiscent of mid-Century Hollywood kitsch. Worst of all, it views L.A. in some quaint notion of the past complete with lonely trumpets and jazzy saxophones. Salonen’s work, while not explicitly about the city itself, makes reference to a much more complicated and changing landscape.

But both works were mostly burdened with the anti-Rumpelstiltskin touch of Gustavo Dud-amel busily spinning gold into straw. Given the many, many performances Salonen himself led of LA Variations, arguably one of his most regarded pieces to date, it would be unrealistic to think that Dudamel could deliver than kind of performance. And he didn’t. He did give his patented one size fits all approach of big, loud climaxes and overly slow quiet movements, and the whole thing sounded sloppy with little control or insight. The rest of the program fared little better under Dudamel’s glancing blow to the festival which begins and ends this weekend. In fact even worse than his marginal conducting in a program like this was his total lack of advocacy for the idea of the program overall. Luckily this was a crowd already sold on much of this music so there wasn't a lot of selling to do. However, I continue to worry about the future of more contemporary music in the L.A. Philharmonic's programming. It's on the schedule for now and involving John Adams is not a bad idea.

But so far there is little evidence that our music director has any interest or aptitude for newer music. What contemporary composers does Dudamel favor, for instance? Where does he see the art form going? How does the musical past relate to what he's conducting now? If he has any ideas on these and other topics, he sure hasn't let on much about it yet. In fairness, he has only just started the job, and he is leading one of the "Green Umbrella" new music programs in May, so perhaps he'll have more to say on such subjects by then. So far he's been willing to conduct the new commissions that the L.A. Philharmonic's programming folks have laid out for him like a good soldier, but he appears to be much more about the long dead than the living. The good news is that the audience is about to get time off for good behavior in that we'll be free of Dudamel and his "ideas" until April of next year. Enjoy the silence.



Martin Bernheimer during the Previn years, is that you?

Careful Brian, if you're so vehemently against The Dude in his first season, it leaves you no room for maneuever later. I'd hate for you to end up the blog equivalent to Donald Rosenberg > Franz Welser-Most (i.e. your opinion ceases to be believeable) because I count on you as one of my non-Mark Swed sources on whether to go to various things.
You have a good point. I'm somewhat concerned about this myself. I must admit that some of my negativity is enhanced by Mr. Dudamel's free ride in a unabashedly starry-eyed press reception virtually everywhere. Since Given that I'm one of the few actually critical voices, I may be more strident than is necessary.

But I will also state that I have enjoyed the first few months of this season less than virtually any previous period of attending LA Phil concerts. As it becomes less and less enjoyable, I've become more and more bitter in what I write.
I haven't been to the Phil all so far this year. The programming for me is horribly dull, I'm starting to suspect that the days of adventure are over in Los Angeles.

Yeah, the hype. I sense a lot of it is "OMG! OMG! The savior of classical music is here, this is the guy that will have 20-somethings flocking to the box office!". I've been to 4 concerts he's conducted and I'll leave out the SBYO, just hated it (and they didn't even bust out the shirts and dancing either!). Of the other three, one was a mixed bag (a horrible Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a mindblowing Daphnis et Chloe), one was terrific (the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra) and one was poor (can't remember the program).

As a dedicated fan of European modernism, I got used to E-PS programming a lot of the stuff. Those days are gone forever, I'm afraid.
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