Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ***/***

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Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Barbican Hall, 2nd May and 4th May 2018

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen – Pollux
  • Edgar Varese – Ameriques
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 “Choral”

Canny students of architecture will realise that the pic above is not of the Barbican. The Brutalist Barbican Estate is a thing of beauty to my eyes, though not to many others I realise, but surely no-one can be anything other than blown away by Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Phil under current Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. I’ve never been there but I think have been driven past a couple of times. On the bucket list.

There was enough in the two main programmes on offer this year from the LA Phil’s residency at the Barbican for the Tourist to pitch up to both, albeit with some trepidation. The last time I saw Senor Dudamel and his fine head of hair was with his other band, the legendary Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They bashed out a showy Petrushka and Rite of Spring. In places it was electrifying, in others mystifying, (not mystical). I don’t know if at 37, and into his ninth year at the LA Phil, building on Esa Pekka Salonen’s legacy, S. Dudamel can still be counted a wunderkind. He is still as wilful as ever though.

As was revealed here. The first concert kicked off with a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen himself, the man who is credited with turning the LA Phil into a contender for the US’s best orchestra, and certainly its most innovative in terms of contemporary classical music. We are lucky to have the fiery Finn, (fiery as Finns go I reckon), in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, especially when he turns his baton to Stravinsky. As a composer though, I am less sure. This was the European premiere of Pollux, which, in time, will be paired with Castor, to mean both twins of Greek legend, immortal and mortal, are brought to musical life. Pollux is slow and dark, in the composer’s words, Castor will be faster. EPS nicked a bass line from a post-grunge band, slowing it right down, a chorale from a Rilke sonnet about the boy Orpheus and slipped in an Ancient Greek Aeolian echo. All right over my head. It bubbled along pleasantly enough, all clusters and modes, but I am afraid left no mark on me.

I have tried Varese’s Ameriques a couple of times now with limited success. I get how important Varese was, in retrospect, to the development of modern classical music, and I enjoyed the programme of chamber scale pieces delivered by Guildhall School students as part of the Varese immersion day at the Barbican this time last year. But Ameriques is just a noise. Of noise. And it is very noisy. Especially here as GD let his percussion and brass sections run riot. It is difficult not to feel something from the sheer, physical energy of the piece, and the Debussyian and Stravinskyian shards provide texture, but it just doesn’t go beyond the immediate wow.

Now I read a review that contained a remark along the lines that US orchestras can’t really do Shostakovich because they are “too well-fed”. I think that about sums it up. In my limited experience the best performances of DSCH’s symphonies are either the very lean, uncompromising performances from Russia orchestras in days gone by, or from contemporary European orchestras who can capture the essence of those orchestras, whilst harnessing their greater playing skills. Put a Russian conductor in charge of a British orchestra and you have a guarantee of success. Or better still just hand it over to maestro Haitink.

This Fifth would have left a smile on Joe Stalin’s face. DSCH’s Mahlerian tendencies were loud and proud and the D major finale was bombastic, yes, but still felt like genuine, not forced, adulatory. I think GD and the LA Phil were at their best in the second movement scherzo, (as they were in the imposing, fugal scherzo of the Choral Symphony), with its waltzy rollercoaster rhythms and distinct central trios. The Largo third movement, just strings and a touch of woodwind, was way too rich for my blood and the first movement was too mannered as it shifted from slow to fast and back again. The canons, at the opening for strings, and then between flute and horn, and violin and piccolo, in the recapitulation were as striking as ever but the lyrical second theme was too smooth by half. DSCH strings need to have a bit of acid about them, even in this, the friendliest and most “classical” of his symphonies.

GD and the LA Phil were at it again a couple of nights later for the Choral Symphony. I didn’t bother with the Chichester Psalms in the first half as I don’t like it. Sorry. Most of the Beethoven I listen to is “period informed” and/or nips along at a fair lick. The plushest of the recordings I have is probably the oldest, (in terms of how long I have had it), in the form of Karl Bohm and the VPO. GD and the LA Phil offered an even weightier interpretation. As you might have guessed I didn’t take to it.

I heard a fantastic rendition from the LSO in this very Hall under Bernard Haitink. My favourite concert of 2015. The London Symphony Chorus was in fine fettle on that evening as they were here. For me they were the best of the instruments on show. Actually let me rephrase that. All the instruments on show were impressive, it was just that by the time, every one had had their say, the line and structure of Beethoven’s masterpiece got a little lost. The release at the start of the finale felt a little reserved and the coda was bashed through like a getaway car. Julianna Di Giacomo’s soprano is a thing of some beauty but got a little to bright here, Jennifer Johnson Cano’s mezzo was a little indistinct. The lads done well, Michael Konig tenor and especially Soloman Howard’s bass.

All in all then an interesting couple of evenings, if not as involving as I would have expected, for what are, two of the greatest major works ever written. The LA Phil is well upholstered, professional to a man and woman, but put together with GD’s over-emphases and exaggerated tempi, (including the relaxed in the paddock approach to start times), not quite as astonishing as I had been led to expect. To be fair the Barbican Hall acoustic doesn’t take kindly to this sort of full throttle treatment but that’s what rehearsals are for.

Mind you I clearly was in a minority. On both nights the full house went bananas at the end. Horses for courses I suppose.

 

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