Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

All Beethoven, All The Time

February 18, 2010

Riccardo Chailly and members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Photo: mine 2010

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra makes a point in their press materials of being the oldest civic orchestra in the world. They point to a storied history of legendary music directors and note such fun facts as that the orchestra performed all of Beethoven’s symphonies during the composers lifetime. Now I’m not one to buy into the importance of pedigree in creating an orchestra’s “sound” much less that specific orchestras have particular and readily identifiable “sounds” to begin with. But I must admit that the all Beethoven program the Gewandhaus performed in Los Angeles on Wednesday under the direction of Riccardo Chailly makes me begin to think twice. It was an overly familiar program consisting of the No. 5 Piano Concerto and Symphony No 7. The symphony had been played on this stage as recently as two weeks ago under Herbert Blomstedt (himself a former music director with the Gewandhaus Orchestra). But tonight the Gewandhaus’ performance was clearly on another level altogether. It thrived and breathed at every turn, full or drama and tension one would typically associate with much bigger and later Romantic works. I’m not the world’s biggest Beethoven fan, but I must admit it was mighty impressive and against my better judgment, I caught myself imagining the weight of this orchestra’s history with this music from the beautiful rich sound it produced.

If I had any complaint about the evening, it was the nearly always unpleasant intrusion of fate. The originally scheduled soloist, Nelson Freire canceled due to illness. In a pinch, Louis Lotrie was called in for the concerto. He played nimbly and very expressively, but at times a touch of schmaltz put him at a distinct disadvantage against Chailly and this world class orchestra. He was very warmly received by the audience, though, and both soloist and orchestra gave Beethoven encores as well. Chailly introduced the Prometheus Overture, played as the encore in the second half of the program, by noting that you can never have too much Beethoven. While typically I couldn’t disagree more strongly, for just this night and with just this orchestra, I was easily persuaded otherwise.

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