Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
This Ain't No Party. This Ain't No Disco.
November 12, 2011
Los Angeles loves pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. Or at least Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences do. They’re fixtures with the orchestra in both new repertory and old and have made three appearances with the orchestra already this year alone. In April they played Stravinsky under Thomas Adès and in September gave a lovely performance of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Piano’s under Juanjo Mena. Now it’s November and the sisters returned with a world premiere and new commission from Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon. The Labèques have had major successes with new compositions here before, including Louis Andriessen’s double piano concerto, The Hague Hacking, which they played in 2009 with then music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. This time around the L.A. Philharmonic's music director was nowhere to be found for the premiere, which was instead trusted to visiting conductor Semyon Bychkov. Dubugnon’s double piano concerto was inspired by the 15th-century Battle of San Romano as depicted by Paolo Uccelo (The second of the three paintings in this set is shown above). Of course one of the most omnipresent metaphors for concertos in general is the struggle between orchestra and soloist regardless of the instruments in question, so the inspiration of Medieval warfare wouldn’t seem too out of place. But Dubugnon has a number of layers and twists on the typical musical struggles. Rather than place soloists and orchestra on opposite sides of the struggle, he divides the players along other arbitrary lines. This “Battlefield” concerto pits the two pianos against one another each with their own contingent of orchestra players who are physically divided into two camps on stage as well.
The music moves through several uninterrupted movements representing stages of the conflict from a call to arms to a Funeral and Triumphant March. There are two off-stage trumpets that call players to the fray periodically on either side. Dubugnon notes that part of the musical inspiration for the piece was to avoid what he saw as the historic tendency to have both soloists in double concertos play more or less complementary parts often making it difficult to separate out the two instruments. Here the Labèques parried and thrusted back and fort throughout the length of the work. And while they did not play in unison, it is probably more accurate to say that their passages tended to mirror one another in terms of both musical tone and structure. These were solo parts that were not at all oblivious to one another, but engaged in an intimate if purportedly combative embrace. All this being said, I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the piece. There were some big dramatic moments, but the content overall seemed programmatic and didactic in the least interesting way. And despite the shifts in the battle, things tended not to vary much from section to section creating more of an exhausted sensation than a cathartic one at the end. Still, the work was more compelling than Enrico Chapela's recent concerto for electric cello, MAGNETAR, which premiered here several weeks ago. Dubugnon largely avoids the kind of endless references to popular music genres that are the hallmark of so much contemporary classical composition these days. There is an electric bass used intermittently in the "Battlefield" concerto and a few rhythmic touches here and there, but not the wholesale incorporation of jazz and blues riffs heard in recent works here by the likes of Chapela and John Adams.
Dubugnon’s concerto was paired with two quintessential Romantic pieces. First was Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole in the two piano version. The Labèques excel with this kind of material and the detailed wash of the sound was beautiful. After the intermission and the concerto was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Bychkov led a warm and adequately muscular performance from the orchestra. The strings sounded great with the bigger, more robust sound they’ve developed over the last couple of seasons. This is not the most compelling music, however. The good news is that it is not Rachmaninoff’s piano music. But the Symphonic Dances especially when held up against the work of Ravel, can sound under-orchestrated and surprisingly banal. But Bychkov and the orchestra gave a top-drawer take on what there was to play. Which I suppose was a nice break after all the musical conflict that preceded it. The show repeats Saturday and Sunday.
Here you go again with a cheap shot in your favorite direction: "the L.A. Philharmonic's music director was nowhere to be found for the premiere". As you undoubtedly know, he leads two other orchestras on two different continents and is in great demand as a guest conductor by many leading symphony orchestras and opera houses around the world. As for his activities in LA, as you have already been reminded before, here and elsewhere - during this current season he is performing more premieres and more recent music than just about any other conductor working in United States right now (for specific numbers, see an item posted on the Third of August this year in a blog called "All is Yar"). It is also telling that you name a conductor next to every premiere you mention in this post - except for the Chapela's new work which was of course conducted by that same Maestro. As if all this is not biased enough, when complimenting the strings for their sound and acknowledging that it was "developed over the last couple of years", you predictably fail to give credit for it to anyone, because you know very well who, in his third season as the Music Director, is clearly responsible for making that undeniable improvement possible. This is what is called being blatantly unfair.
You love new music. We get it. However, the Philharmonic has got to balance the desires of folks like you with what the majority of its customers want to hear (all music, not just what's been written in the last 2 years). I think it does a very good job, and its audiences are more open to a much broader span of the repertoire because of this. The Phil has a long tradition of programming new music, and this has not changed with the arrival of Gustavo. I don't know of any other orchestra(not committed exclusively to contemporary music) that programs as much 20th and 21st century music as the LAPO. Do you? Perhaps you can enlighten me on this subject...
While new music may not be Dudamel's bread and butter, he has made significant strides in that direction since he started here, and is much more confident conducting it. I'm sorry he can't be here for every premiere, but even if he were, you'd still find some excuse to slam him.
You don't like Dudamel - this much is clear. Your reviews might have a bit more credibility if you were fair in your evaluation of him. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.