Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

And They're Off...

October 02, 2011

Esteban Benzecry Photo: Arnaldo Colombaroli 2011

The Los Angeles Philharmonic got its 2011/2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall under way this weekend with the first real show of the season. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is in town for the first months of programs, and the first regular show of the year included Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and two shorter contemporary works. There was a small amount of grumbling when this weekends program had been changed several weeks ago with Stravinsky’s Symphony in C being dropped for the U.S. Premiere of Esteban Benzecry’s Rituales Amerindios. Or at least that’s what I heard on my few ticket exchange visits to the box office this year. Yes there are still a lot of audience members that will dump tickets for anything that has a name they don’t recognize and it appears losing Stravinsky was a non-starter for some. There were more empty seats than usual for the first regular subscription show of the year.

All those who bailed missed out. Benzecry’s “Pre-Columbian Triptych for Orchestra” was the best thing about this weekend’s performance. Benzecry is not new to Los Angeles audience and his Fantasia Mastay was heard as part of the L.A. Phil’s “Green Umbrella” programs in May 2009. The three movements of his new work delivered on the promise of that prior evening with all of its swirling cacophony. Rituales Amerindios refers to elemental gods of three different Pre-Columbian tribes: Ehécatl (Aztec wind god), Chaac (Mayan water god), and Illapa (Incan thunder god). Each movement refers to one of these figures in a non-narrative non-programmatic way. And while the music is clearly inspired by these figures, it is not filled with the sounds of folk-music. Perhaps what I like best was the unsuspecting ways that Benzecry evoked these elements. There was no need for wind machines or orchestral rushing water sounds here, but the air and sea were all around. Only the last movement with its banging drums of thunder seemed a bit obvious, but the work is largely a success.

Speaking of unusual approaches to the familiar, the evening started with a fanfare from John Adams, Tromba Lontana. This rather oblique diffuse welcome, lovely as it is in its brevity, hardly calls to mind the kind of music one expects in a fanfare with its humming, oscillating qualities. The evening ended with Berlioz getting the Dudamel treatment du jour. Packed with intense contrasts the performance failed as much as it succeeded. The slow movements still grind to a halt and lose the overall thread of the narrative, while large flourishes become distorted in the rush to excitement. The final movement was almost abrasive in its dash to the end. The feeling was certainly there, but I wouldn’t call it musical. So it is these days in Los Angeles. But who knows, a whole season lies ahead.


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