Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Everything Old is New Again

May 02, 2011

Conductor David Afkham Photo: Julien Luebbert

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most readily identifiable piece of “classical” music there is. Its music, and particularly its opening chords, are synonymous with an entire genre of music outside of the popular sphere, and even in an American culture landscape with an arguably dwindling interest in classical music it is immediately recognized by just about everyone even if not by name. With such daunting odds, making the work sound fresh would seem impossible. And yet it does happen. And it happened right here in Los Angeles this weekend under the baton of a young man not yet thirty. No, not that one. It was David Afkham, the up-and-coming German conductor who has worked closely with Gergiev as an Assistant Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and won the inaugural 2010 Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Prize. He’s currently in Los Angeles as one of the L.A. Phil's conducting fellows, and he was tapped in a pinch this weekend to fill in for an ailing Jaap van Zweden. Given his track record, that he is talented is not surprising. That he pulled out so exciting a performance of a most tried and true warhorse is. From the minute he came out on stage, there was no messing around. He dove into those opening chords with speed and intensity that were breathtaking and indicative of a larger picture approach to the work. This was a performance both rich in detail but fleet and energetic. It was also remarkable in that none of the symphony’s movements were overworked or sloppy. It was fabulously exciting music making from an orchestra that played with some authentic fire but maintained balance and respected the work's larger structural elements at the same time.

There were many other reasons to cheer. The evening started with a solid run through of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, a replacement for Escher’s Musique pour l’esprit en deuil which changed with the last minute conductor substitution. Granted the 20th century work was missed, but under the circumstances, it’s loss was to be expected. Of course Afkham had two opportunities to prove himself in 20th century repertoire this week. The other major work on this weekend’s program was Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante, a cello concerto in three movements that was performed by L.A. Phil Principal cellist Peter Stumpf. This is a thorny work with wildly varying passages within and between movements. It can be dark and foreboding and folk-like by turns, presaging the work of Shostakovich. Afkham managed to expertly hold the whole proceedings together while giving Stumpf room for a magnificent performance filled with both biting energy and beautiful lyrical control. It was a complete pleasure. Afkham’s other big moment in Los Angeles this week came on Tuesday leading a small ensemble in a chamber version of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat. The puckish score about a deal with the devil that is negotiated and then renegotiated comes complete with narration which was provided in this case by a somewhat overly done Bennett Schneider. The piece is suggestive of The Rake's Progress in its themes. Tuesday's performance with its plucked strings and ribald horns was another testament to Afkham’s ability to manage diverse elements with rhythmic complexity while keeping the larger work integrated. This was Stravinsky at his witty folkloric best and the musical performance was excellent. It was a big debut week for Afkahm at the Phil, and it will hopefully not be the last we see this truly talented young conductor in our midst.




How many instrumentalists did you see on stage for the Histoire? Not a horn in sight.
Thanks for the comment. Actually, I'm using "horn" in the more general or coloquial sense of the word which can be applied to a vairety of brass instruments (and has been used with regards to saxaphones as well). I do realize that there was no French Horn in the ensemble, but there was certainly both a trumpet and trombone, both brass instruments and both sometimses referred to in a general sense as "horns"
Actually, when talking about a piece that has "the devil" as one of the protagonists, mentioning its (piece's AND/OR devil's) "ribald horns" seems to me particularly appropriate.
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