November 26, 2006

MUSIC: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nov 26 (Janacek / Harbison / Dvorak)

The semi-obligatory disclaimer: I am not a musicologist, nor do I play one on TV. I can tell you what I saw and heard, and what I thought of it, but anything that sounds like actual knowledge is almost certainly lifted from the program notes.

Like, for instance, the fact that the Cunning Little Vixen Suite is a somewhat condensed version of Act I of Janacek's opera, with the vocal parts re-assigned to the orchestra; the orchestration was done by Vaclav Talich, and is generally considered to be somewhat more conservative than the orchestration Janacek had used in the actual opera.

It was clear from listening that Janacek wasn't big on grand romantic arias; the melodies tend to be more fragmented and conversational, thrown back and forth among instruments. There is a lovely tune for solo violin a few minutes in, though; it's a spiky, wide-ranging melody that's a bit hard to imagine anyone singing. Perhaps it's orchestral in the original as well?

All in all, I suspect that this suite is probably not the best introduction to Janacek, whose music I know very little about. It's pretty from moment to moment, but surely it holds together better in the original opera, with characters and words and plot and such. (By coincidence, there's more Janacek -- Taras Bulba -- on my next subscription concert.)

The Janacek suite was followed by John Harbison; the LA Philharmonic had co-commissioned his new Concerto for Bass Viol, which was performed by the Phil's principal bassist, Dennis Trembly.

This seems to be my season for unlikely concertos, with the Harbison coming just a few weeks after Brett Dean's Viola Concerto (which I commented on here). The contrast between the two was instructive; where Dean too often buried his soloist in heavy orchestral writing, Harbison's orchestration was skillfully thought out to allow the solo bass to shine through.

The orchestra was small by contemporary music standards, with a small complement of strings, the usual collection of winds, a handful of brass (horns and trumpets only), piano, and a relatively small battery of percussion. Harbison rarely used the full orchestra at once, and when he did, it generally alternated with the soloist in stating various themes. The strings were used sparingly, and Harbison was careful to use them in ways that wouldn't bury the solo bass -- high violins when the bass was in its lowest register, for instance, or the orchestral basses playing legato support to the soloist's rapid pizzicato melody. The winds, brass, and mallets (vibes and marimba, I believe) carried much more of the orchestral writing than usual, which gave the piece an overall lightness that nicely countered the weight of the solo bass.

After intermission, we got Dvorak's 7th Symphony, a very dramatic piece that was nicely played. I couldn't help feeling, though, that the Philharmonic under guest conductor Carlos Kalmar wasn't quite as vibrant as I've heard it under Esa-Pekka Salonen; there could have been a little more rhythmic kick in the Scherzo, a little more dynamic contrast everywhere, a little more punch in the big climax at the end. It was a pleasant performance, but never quite became an exciting one.

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