Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Gone, Forgotten

May 13, 2011

From Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire

There was more unbinding of Brahms to attend to on Thursday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under music director Gustavo Dudamel. But before getting down to that Herculean labor, there was some newer music to attend to: the West Coast Premiere of Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing. One of the few premieres originally scheduled as part of the the L.A. Phil’s "Brahms Unbound" series that has actually arrived as planned, Beautiful Passing is a single movement violin concerto composed for Leila Josefowicz who performed it on Friday. (Mackey's work, like Gubaidulina's Glorious Percussion on tap for next weekend, both had their world premieres elsewhere previously decreasing the likelihood of derailment here by events tragic or otherwise.) Beautiful Passing mines traditional soloist vs. orchestra concerto dynamics with the violin playing material in opposition to the orchestra in the first part of the score. The solo violin's more meditative lines are repeatedly interrupted by brash and sometimes comical outbursts from the orchestra. Tennis balls crash against the timpani and Josefowicz played along looking almost irritated by these goings on. After a short cadenza, the order of things changed with the violin now puckishly calling the shots and everyone working together until a peaceful resolution is achieved. Score one for the soloist. I liked the spirit of Beautiful Passing despite Mackey’s tendencies toward sentimentality and its familiar dynamic. Of course, writing music for Josefowicz is always an excellent idea considering her ability to make even the most obvious of gestures seem brilliant and inspired. She made the piece and as usual was great to watch.

Then came Brahms’ German Requiem, which on this evening enlisted the considerable talents of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and soloists Christine Schäfer and Matthias Goerne. This is perhaps one of the thorniest and most difficult to like works Brahms produced. Although it has its advocates, Schoenberg among them, there's a parallel historical litany of great figures who’ve disparaged the work as well, including some of those who generally favored Brahms’ music. There is undoubtedly some wonderful music in it that argues against what George Bernard Shaw saw as an “intolerable tedium” and in the right hands it can shine. Those hands do not belong to Gustavo Dudamel at this point in time. If Shaw was looking for evidence to support his assessment of Brahms’ requiem, Dudamel delivered it in spades. Bloated and laborious, beautiful passages in the score were often left to drift on a sea of dross. Granted Dudamel could produce some lovely Individual moments. The performance certainly had more edges to it than the one given by the Dresden Staatskapelle last fall in New York under Daniel Harding which sank under the impervious sheen of its highly polished but emotionless playing. It almost goes without saying though that the L.A. Phil performance under Dudamel stretched out to ridiculous proportions clocking in at 79 minutes. But worse than any tempo issue, was Dudamel's loss of the bigger picture. There was little of the promised consolation for the living in this performance of Brahms’ uniquely humanistic mass for the dead. The evening often seemed to be running in any number of different directions at once with its rough groupings of big climaxes here and overworked detail there.

There were some saving graces, however. The Los Angeles Master Chorale sounded superb. They are on the go for this whole evening from beginning to end and they never let their energy flag regardless with what was going on around them. And then there is Matthias Goerne. He was devastatingly good with his burnished tone and ease of delivery. He suddenly injected real emotion and drama into the evening every time he stood, pointing the way to the balm Brahms had in mind in the works composition. Frankly he was so good that his appearance alone makes the evening worthwhile. Not everything rose to his level in the performance, but there were moments it came close. So, go prepared to be amazed even if the experience on the whole is at turns brutal and exhausting. The show repeats through Sunday.



Though I haven't yet heard Dudamel's performance, the German Requiem does not seem a piece well suited to Dudamel's temperament and his tendency to dwell on dramatic moments. Also, the plain fact of the matter is he's not old or mature enough a conductor for this work. The German Requiem is a challenge for any conductor, but young conductors really have no business programming it.
I heard the broadcast performance yesterday afternoon, and it bore out my concerns. I had to turn radio off midway through "Denn alles fleisch es ist wie gras" because I couldn't stand it any longer. I checked in again an hour later —I couldn't believe they hadn't yet finished playing! It took time for me to recognize exactly where they were in the score, it was so pulled out of proportion. I have never heard a performance I liked less.
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