Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Magnetic Fields

October 21, 2011

Johannes Moser on an electric cello
The Los Angeles Philharmonic season has gotten off to a particularly slow start this Fall with five weeks of performances under music director Gustavo Dudamel. Despite two premieres, the shows have featured uninspired programming made worse last week by the cancellation of pianist Yefim Bronfman. Of course, you can still read all of the orchestra’s latest talking points as repeated by the major press organizations in town: Dudamel is a rock star, the orchestra is blowing the roof off of Disney Concert Hall, etc. You can even hear about how Dudamel has won classical music’s equivalent of America’s Got Talent, the Gramophone Artist of the Year Award. But the musical performances have been lacking and the shine of the orchestra’s hot new conductor is starting to fade. Dudamel’s concerts, although still better attended than anything else on the schedule, are no longer certain sell-outs. Or at least there are enough available tickets that somebody felt the need to hire a local social marketing PR firm a few weeks ago to get the word out about all the available tickets for the L.A. Phil shows Dudamel’s been leading this month. Meanwhile inside the concert hall, hype continues to outpace delivered goods at least 2 to 1.

And so it was this weekend with a show the L.A. Phil will take to San Francisco on Sunday featuring an uninspiring performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and a new work from Enrico Chapela –MAGNETAR, a concerto for electric cello and orchestra composed for soloist Johannes Moser. Following the second John Adams’ fanfare this month, Moser arrived on stage with the instrument in question on Friday and talked up Chapela’s music. We were told that unlike so many contemporary composers who write for the future, a stance that as you might guess is purportedly detrimental to music, Chapela writes for today. And if writing for today means writing short-lived, inconsequential music, in this particular case, I suppose he does. The concerto certainly wasn’t serious music. And by serious, I mean good. MAGNETAR starts out with the musicians in the orchestra rubbing their hands together, clapping, and snapping their fingers. All of this probably sounded cool, but you couldn’t hear any of it over the laughter in the audience on Friday. The following three movements were mostly marked by an indifference to the unique musical qualities of the electric instrument. Outside of a few sound effects, there seemed little about the solo part that couldn’t have just as easily been played on a standard cello and probably more clearly heard by the audience. It was also odd that Chapela’s piece seemed oblivious to the significant literature for electronic string instruments including Adams’ own The Dharma at Big Sur, which helped usher in the Walt Disney Concert Hall itself. The concerto was little more than a musical pastiche of jazzy interludes and watered down Led Zeppelin that neither rocked nor sang.

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in the second half of the program was stronger, but burdened with Dudamel’s many interpretive foibles. The first movement started out inexplicably slowly and the chronic balance problems soon resurfaced. Major themes were just as likely to be buried under supporting material as not in both the third and fourth movements. And the memory of performances from the Mariinsky Orchestra in Southern California earlier this week emphatically underlined the lack of anything even approaching a Russian sound in the performance. Of course, that’s not really a fair comparison, but there is still a tendency under Dudamel for everyone to be playing his or her little heart out without enough regard to the bigger picture. As discouraging as all this was, there were clearly people who couldn’t get enough of it all on Friday, clapping in any available silent space in the performance giving their own unique touch to the iTunes recording being made that evening. But that may be the price of being America's populist orchestra.



"And if writing for today means writing short-lived, inconsequential music, in this particular case, I suppose he does. The concerto certainly wasn’t serious music. And by serious, I mean good."

I had to give my ticket back at the San Francisco tomorrow night because an emergency job showed up and I was feeling bad about it, but no longer. See, even when you're being mean, you are doing good, Brian.
It's a shame you're relying on the opinion of someone who clearly has an ax to grind to talk you out of hearing the LA Phil (or in your case, make you glad you're going to miss it). Brian's reviews are predictably boring - anytime Dudamel is on the podium, Brian is going to eviscerate him. Put a pretty, sexually ambiguous conductor up there, and the guy can do no wrong. As consistent as a Swiss watch...

Brian, did it ever occur to you that maybe the economy might have something to do with the availability of seats? Look around the country at any arts venue - attendance is down all over. The way you can create cause and effect with absolutely nothing to substantiate your claims is, well, predictably boring. You hear what you want to hear. Objectivity is not one of your strong suits...
Boring and predictable, perhaps, but obviously relevant in that you and others continue to read what I have to say on this and other topics.

As for the economy, that too is certainly a relevant factor. However considering that Dudamel took over the orchestra at the height of the most recent financial crisis and that the economy has only improved (or stabilized) over his particular tenure, that hardly seems like a logical or satisfactory explanation for any possible decline.
Brian, he did not start at the height of the financial crisis. This is yet another example of something you throw out that as if it is fact when it is anything but. Even if he did, there is a lag between economic cycles and its impact on arts support.

I would not read too much into why I visit this site. Again, you are connecting too many dots to arrive at the conclusion that I find you relevant. You sound to me like a smarmy trust-fund kid with way too much money and time on his hands. Recalling one of your previous posts, it sounds to me like you had one professor at a very formative time in your life decree what constituted "good" art versus "bad" art, and that dogma stuck in your head. You are consistent, I'll say that much.

In any event, you are entitled to your opinion, but anyone reading this blog will hopefully see it for what it is. Perhaps you feel the need to balance Herr Swed's consistently over-the-top praise, but in the end, I find I have to dismiss much of what both of you say, as neither sounds particularly impartial. The one thing that troubles me about your writing, however, is its seeming lack of "inside knowledge". You often throw stuff out mid-rant that leaves me scratching my head - sort of like armchair quarterbacking from someone who has never actually played football...
@MC: I heard the LA Phil with Dudamel on their last tour through San Francisco and walked out of the Mahler First because it was so godawful. The only reason I wanted to attend this evening's tour was because I enjoy hearing new music, and the electric cello concerto sounded fun.

Brian seems to be an enthusiast with a wide range of interests, and usually likes a lot more things than I do, so if he's slagging a piece of new music, it's not a good sign.

As for "Put a pretty, sexually ambiguous conductor up there, and the guy can do no wrong." I might agree with that assessment if you were referring to the New York Times' Anthony Tomassini, but that's not Brian's style at all. In fact, your remark comes across as just plain homophobic, and your personal attack on him as a "smarmy trust-fund kid" couldn't be more hilariously off the mark.
Sadly, I'm in agreement with you, Brian. Friday's concert will be my last Dudamel concert for a while. I'll be interested in reading Kosman's review of the San Francisco concerts. Fortunately we still have guest conductors. November's line up looks fantastic!
I'm with sfmike! I've walked out of a couple of Dudamel concerts myself. Esa-Pekka come back... all is forgiven!!!!
Brian and I agree more often than not, but having heard Magnetar in SF tonight, I was quite captured by the piece. Did it strike me as profound? No, but then neither does Bernard Hermann (or Prokofiev for that matter) but I still enjoy hearing his music performed. I mention Hermann specifically, because Magnetar seemed very cinematic.
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