May 08, 2005

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic / Evelyn Glennie

Last night's Philharmonic concert was a bit on the disappointing side, though percussionist Evelyn Glennie was, as always, most impressive.

The concert opened with Copland's Organ Symphony, a very early work that doesn't sound much like Copland's best-known pieces. It's a meandering, rather tuneless affair that didn't hold the audience's attention very well at this performance; the coughing breaks between movements were the longest I've ever heard. The role of the organ in the symphony is of an odd size, too big to imagine the piece without the organ, but not quite large enough to make it a full-fledged concerto. (Copland eventually did revise the piece for performance without organ, as his Symphony #1.) Mary Preston was the organist, and though I'm no organ expert, it seemed to be a fine performance.

Next up, Evelyn Glennie gave the US premiere of the Concerto Fabuleux, by the young Dutch composer Marijn Simons. The concerto's in three movements, named after the dragon, the werewolf, and the unicorn. Simons seems to be more interested in tone color and sonority than in melody or harmony, and there are some lovely sounds in the concerto -- a passage for bowed vibraphone and low strings, the lovely combination of marimba and celesta -- but to my ears, there wasn't much holding the pretty moments together in a cohesive whole.

Glennie's performance was, I think, all the piece could have wanted. She's a very theatrical performer, and watching her play is as much fun as listening to her. There's a passage for a set of tuned gongs which hang on racks to either side of her, and as she leans from side to side to strike the gongs, occasionally reaching back over her shoulder without looking, each note struck with a slow deliberate motion, it's like a slow-motion outtake from a martial arts movie.

Glennie returned after intermission to perform her own transcription for vibraphone of Vivaldi's Piccolo Recorder Concerto in C. I've not heard the original, but I'm sure that Glennie's ornamentation of the melody line in the fast movements is more elaborate than any recorder player could pull off; her arpeggiated figures and scales fly by at dizzying speeds. It was the highlight of the evening.

Finally, the orchestra closed the program with Respighi's Pines of Rome. It's one of those orchestral showpieces that is filled with audience-pleasing moments; it's exceptionally skillful cheap music. This was a reasonably good performance, but the ending -- an enormous climax of frantically sawing strings, crashing cymbals, and loud unison brass melodies -- wasn't so much thrilling as it was just loud. The guest conductor for the evening, Michael Christie, is quite young -- barely in his 30s -- and perhaps he'll develop a bit more subtlety with experience.

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