October 15, 2006

MUSIC: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oct 15 (Haydn / Dean / Mussorgsky)

Today's concert, under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, featured the US premiere of Brett Dean's Viola Concerto, which coincidentally was given its Australian premiere by the Sydney Symphony while I was on vacation in Sydney in August. My comments on that performance are here; I hadn't been dazzled by the piece, but it was interesting enough that I welcomed the chance to hear a second performance. (How often does anyone get to hear a piece of new music performed twice, by different orchestras?)

The biggest difference was caused by the hall; the acoustics at the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House are very good, but those at LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall are stunning. Quiet passages in Dean's music -- the opening of the piece, the beginning of the third movement -- could be played at a significantly lower volume in LA than they could in Sydney, where they'd have been inaudible to much of the audience. Further, the acoustics allowed Dean's orchestral writing to shine more clearly than it had in Sydney; I was especially impressed by his use of a large percussion section (I think this is the first time that I've seen sandpaper among the list of instruments) and by a lovely deep rumble obtained by striking the strings of the double bass with soft mallets.

The improved acoustics alleviated, but did not entirely eliminate, the biggest problem with Dean's concerto, which is that the soloist is too often buried beneath the heavy orchestral scoring. I'm still not sure whether this flaw is inherent to the viola, or whether Dean simply doesn't play with enough force to be heard; we may not know for sure until some other soloist takes up the piece.

The concert opened with Haydn's Symphony #82 in C Major, "The Bear." To my ears, Haydn symphonies tend to blur together; they're all charming and pleasant to listen to, and the Philharmonic delivered a crisp, lively performance, with every detail precisely in place.

The highlight of the program was Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration. It's a piece that is exciting and entertaining if it's played at all competently; when it's played well, it's incredibly thrilling, and the Philharmonic played it extremely well indeed. The mood of each movement was perfectly captured -- the droll wit of "The Gnome," the gloom of "The Old Castle," the near-slapstick of "Ballet of the Chicks." The featured soloists took full advantage of their moments in the spotlight; the final alto saxophone note of "The Old Castle" faded away with impeccable control, and the stuttering trumpet was a joy to hear in "Two Polish Jews."

The key to a great Pictures is a great brass section, which the Philharmonic certainly has, and when the final statements of the "Great Gate of Kiev" theme rang out, the hair literally stood up on my neck. The audience leapt to its feet at the end of the piece, with a standing ovation that -- for once -- was genuinely earned. It was an extraordinary performance.

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