Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Musette and Drums

May 20, 2011


Sofia Gubaidulina’s excellent adventure here in Los Angeles this week didn’t end with the excellent and varied shows performed at REDCAT that wrapped up on Tuesday. In fact, she got one more parting shot, and it was a doozy. This most remarkable of living composers brought her recent orchestra work, Glorious Percussion to the stage of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. (You can get a taste of the piece above with Dudamel conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the same work.) Dudamel had a hand in the work’s world premiere, which he conducted in the fall of 2008 with the other orchestra he serves as principal conductor for, the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. The work features an ensemble of five percussionists in addition to the regular percussionists of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who play an incredibly large array of instruments from timpani to Javanese gongs and 6 bass drums. Gubaidulina’s love of percussion and particularly ethnic and folk instruments is at the heart of this work that was so inspirational to the five musicians who played the feature roles in the work’s premiere that they took the work’s name as their own in founding a new percussion group. All five of those players were on hand and they, along with the orchestra, brought this immense work raging to life. Like much of Gubaidulina’s sound world, there is darkness and grating edges mixed in with loud dramatic waves of sound. Bass drums come crashing through in unison at times, and at others the bright tinkling of chimes and triangles flutter about like butterflies. The work is divided into distinct sections where groupings of similar percussion instruments are highlighted and often are accompanied by complementary sounds from the orchestra – the chimes run in parallel to the woodwinds and at one point there is an extended dialogue between a bass and a Yoruba talking drum. This is not some pluralistic world percussion tour, however, and Gubaidulina strives to emphasize the central, almost lyrical, role that the sound of the many percussion instruments play in the piece. It’s stirring and sometimes almost scary, like being lost in the forest of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. It was a thrilling performance and a perfect capstone to Gubaidulina’s time in Southern California.

But perhaps an equally shocking event on Thursday came right before the start of Glorious Percussion when Dudamel spoke from the stage. He noted that Brahms’ Tragic Overture scheduled to start the evening had been dropped from the program for time and logistics. But he went on to give a detailed and spirited explanation of how he came across the piece and why the audience should care about it. I know. You could have knocked me over with a feather. This gesture, an everyday occurrence on the WDCH stage just over two years ago, has vanished into the midst of overworked American orchestral classics more recently. This is the first time the L.A. Phil’s current music director, to my knowledge, has given this kind of personal public consideration to a piece of contemporary music since arriving in L.A. Dudamel stated that when he arrived in Gothenburg as principal conductor in 2007, he was asked to conduct a world premiere commission from Gubaidulina. He stated he was apprehensive about this since in “[his] country” it was all about older music such as Mahler, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. (Of course why anyone at the L.A. Phil thought that hiring someone with this sort of background to replace Salonen was a good idea is still beyond me.) But Dudamel was won over by the music. It’s great that he was willing to step forward and try to involve the audience in something other than the most predictable concert fare imaginable, and I hope he keeps it up even if his heart isn’t completely in it. But at least there was this one shining moment.

The rest of the evening was taken up with a predictable Dudamel take on Brahms’ Symphony No.2 with all of the requisite slow, dragging tempi and the balance and cohesion problems that have continued to plague this Brahms’ series. Let’s hope the L.A. Phil’s young maestro continues to explore his relatively recent discovery of newer music. It might give Brahms and some of Dudamel’s beloved old masters a chance to breath.



"Slow, dragging tempi" for the Brahms? Surely you jest! I can understand you not liking it but not because it was too slow.
"Of course why anyone at the L.A. Phil thought that hiring someone with this sort of background to replace Salonen was a good idea is still beyond me." Really? But why not? Who says that if something has worked well for seventeen years, nothing else can possibly work on a comparable level? What is so unusual about trying to go in a different direction? And what exactly do you call "the most predictable concert fare imaginable"? Have you predicted any of it before? How much of next season's programming have you predicted before it was announced? Can you predict Gustavo's programs for the '12-'13 season? Give it a try and then we shall see how "predictable" it is.
By the way, it took Esa-Pekka five or six years of living in LA and leading the Phil before he started talking to the audience from the stage about unfamiliar pieces that were being performed. As we have all recently learned, Gustavo is already doing that in only his second year here. Considering that he is still four years younger than his predecessor was when the latter became LAPhil's music director, Gustavo is way ahead of Esa-Pekka in that particular department.
As you have admitted here, the young Venezuelan has surprised you last Thursday in a very positive way, so there is a good reason to think that this was not the last time. If you were really fair about it, you would have noted that he not only connected with the audience verbally about Gubaidulina's fine piece but (more importantly in my opinion) conducted it very effectively and maybe even brilliantly.
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