March 11, 2007

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, March 11 (Reich/Liszt/Holst)

Leonard Slatkin was the guest conductor this week, and the program opened with Reich's Triple Quartet. Sort of.

The piece was written for an on-stage string quartet, playing with two pre-recorded tapes of itself; it was performed today by three on-stage ensembles of twelve strings each. This caused lots of problems. Thirty-six instruments create a far muddier sound than twelve do, and the expansion was unnecessary; it's not as if we'd have had trouble hearing a smaller group. This is Disney Hall, for heaven's sake; you can hear a pin drop in that place. You also lose the effect of having two-thirds of the music arrive as disembodied sound.

Even more important, a lot of the piece is built around the recorded quartets echoing what's being done by the on-stage quartet; as written, those echoes are going to be played by the same players on the same instruments, making them sound a lot more like actual echoes than you can ever get from three different players, no matter how fine their ensemble is.

Those reservations aside, the performance was fine, I guess; I'm never really sure with Reich, whose music I must admit to not quite getting. It's all very pretty, I suppose, with its pulsing rhythms and little melodic fragments, but I never really know what it adds up to, and the only way I can distinguish one piece from another is by instrumentation.

Next, Yundi Li took the stage for Liszt's 1st Piano Concerto. It's a flashy, virtuoso piece, and Li was certainly up to its demands -- hands flying from one end of the keyboard to another in great leaping bounds, runs and arpeggios played so fast that the individual notes become a blur of sound.

But oddly enough, what really stuck in my mind was the triangle. The triangle is one of those unimportant instruments that usually sits on a rack with the woodblocks and the maracas and all of those other things that Percussionist #3 gets stuck playing, but there's triangle all over this damned concerto, so much so that there is a percussionist devoted solely to the triangle. Every few minutes, he'd stand up and TingTingTing; I halfway expected a triangle cadenza to break out.

After intermission, we got Holst's The Planets. (Well, of course, The Planets; does anyone ever play anything else by Holst? Talk about a one-hit wonder...) I am an absolute sucker for The Planets, and it was a thrill to finally hear it live, especially in an auditorium like Disney Hall, where every detail comes through with perfect clarity. The performance was spectacular.

There's not much to say about so familiar a piece, but I was particularly struck this time by how much it sounds like modern movie music. Surely John Williams' Star Wars scores were influenced by the fanfares and rhythmic propulsion of "Mars;" "Jupiter" sounds like an entire mini-movie about lovably eccentric English villagers; and there's a lot of Danny Elfman to be heard in both "Uranus" and "Neptune."

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