Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Big Night Out

September 06, 2012

Denis Matsuev. Photo by V Vyatkin
Classical music at the bowl never benefits from subtlety. The world-class acoustics of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the orchestra’s summer digs in the hollow sounding amplified space of the Hollywood Bowl are two worlds that couldn’t be farther apart. Delicacy has no place at the Bowl where it is crushed by any number of natural phenomena including some of the world’s noisiest audiences. So programming for the big and bold when it comes to sound is never a bad idea, and Tuesday’s program was big, Russian, and oversized in about every sense. This was largely due to the presence of pianist Denis Matsuev, the 1998 Tchaikovsky competition winner, who brought his big, oversized playing to the right place at the right time with the L.A. Phil and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski this week. Matsuev comes off as a modern day Liszt figure. He does much more than concertize with the biggest and best, exploring corners familiar and not of the piano repertoire. He has a taste for jazz, improvisation, and piano transcriptions of both operatic and orchestral works. It's showy and plainly highlights his virtuosity in crowd pleasing ways. But he also projects a seriousness on the stage, jumping into performance quickly with great energy and no hesitation. All of these penchants were on display when he kicked off Tuesday night with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This was meaty playing that was fast, furious, and demanding of attention. It felt impetuous like the composition of a young man that it is. Matsuev milked the rhythmic elements and Urbanski and the orchestra met him punch for punch like some highly coordinated drill team and less like an ongoing battle. It was thrilling from beginning to end in the most visceral sense.

Matsuev flew off after the concerto and came back on the stage for solo piano transcriptions from Stravinsky’s Petrushka and with an encore of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Again, this was not subtle playing and certainly never wistful or tongue-in-cheek. But the sheer brute strength of it all worked well. The Petrushka often sounded like the full orchestra was playing as Matsuev’s hands flew across the keyboard digging in with seriousness even in the lightest flourishes. It was dramatic and exciting playing that filled the giant space around it and left a highly enthusiastic crowd.

The Shostakovich that closed the program, Symphony No. 10, couldn’t have provided a bigger and less successful contrast. The darkest and quietest of Shostakovich’s symphonies is often thorny in its misery. The music crumbles easily and maintaining a decisive thread throughout requires masterful skill. There are some superlative solo passages, which thrive on fine detail from clarinets and horns among others. Urbanski, the young rising Polish conductor, managed to give those solo moments room to breathe, but the opening Moderato sounded wooden, and moments of insight and excitement were too easily followed by playing that was decidedly less focused. Of course, the acoustics didn’t help either, and Urbanski’s interest in detail could get lost in the amplification. Shostakovich’s music often overwhelms, especially those who perform it and this particular performance felt a little too cold to engage the crowd after a decidedly more fierce opening segment. Here’s hoping both Urbanski and Matsuev haven’t made their last appearances in L.A., though. There was much more promise to be excited about than disappointment in the evening’s offing.



How many more times do we have to sit through Thibaudet-Bronfman-Ax before La Borda deigns to invite a Matsuev to Disney Hall? #CulverJake
It is true that the Ax-Bronfman-Thibaudet trio has been enjoying a long-term relationship with the LA Phil. However, just this season alone you may also see and hear at the Walt Disney Concert Hall such distinguished pianists as Andsnes, Vogt, Wang, Trpceski, Fray, Schiff, de la Salle, Lang, Grimaud. As for Matsuev, he has indeed impressed some people in town and may appear at the WDCH one day too, but so far not everyone has really been that enamored by his musicianship yet.
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