May 20, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, May 15 (Mackey/Brahms)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, violin; Christine Schäfer, soprano; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Los Angeles Master Chorale

The program:
  • Mackey: Beautiful Passing
  • Brahms: A German Requiem
It's taken me a few days to get around to writing up this concert, which surprised me in many ways. I had my first major disappointment with Dudamel, and fell in love with a new work by a composer who I hadn't heard about much before.

Let's start with the Brahms. This was one of the first serious pieces of music I got to sing when I went to college, as my small-town high school choir had been the standard mix of badly arranged pop songs, awful show tune medleys, and treacly originals for the high school market, most of the latter involving (a) rainbows, (b) dreams, and (c) the importance of following (a) and/or (b). So getting to sing Brahms, even in English and with two pianos instead of an orchestra, was a big deal, and it's a piece I've had a soft spot for ever since.

The biggest problem with Dudamel's interpretation is that it was deathly slow, running 77 minutes (I'd like to have seen at least 5 minutes chopped off that). Yes, it's a requiem, but it's supposed to be warm and consoling; the waltzes need to have some lilt, some dancing quality, and here they just plodded. The balance between chorus and orchestra was badly off; when they could be heard, the Master Chorale sounded find, but they were too often buried by the orchestra. As for the soloists, they made very pretty sounds, not a word of which was comprehensible. And finally, even if there are supertitles in the hall, there is absolutely no excuse for an organization with the resources of the Los Angeles Philharmonic not to include text in the program.

Steven Mackey's violin concerto, on the other hand, was a delight. It was written shortly after the death of his mother, and takes its title from her final words: "Tell everyone I had a beautiful passing."

Beautiful Passing is about 20 minutes long, divided roughly into two halves separated by a cadenza. As the piece opens, the violin is playing long, serene phrases and constantly being interrupted by wild outbursts from the orchestra. In his program notes, Mackey stresses that he doesn't see the orchestra as evil here; it's simply uncontrolled, chaotic, random -- all the things that life itself is. (It is, perhaps, in the spirit of drawing from all of life that Mackey gives to the brass a bit of melody which he tells us comes from the ticket-printing machines of New Jersey Transit. "A nice little tune," he says, "as ticket machines go.")

There are occasional moments when some of the orchestral instruments (most prominently, the oboe) join forces with the violin, but they quickly return to the general mayhem. Then the cadenza arrives, and it's the first major virtuosic moment the violinist has been given, filled with triple stops, spectacular runs and arpeggios (all of which Josefowicz played the hell out of).  And when the orchestra rejoins her, it's not as if its outbursts are all that much more controlled than they had been, but there seems to be some method to the madness now, and even if the orchestra and the violin aren't exactly working together, they seem to be not quite so much working at cross purposes any more. The orchestra even calms down and backs off enough at the very end to let the violin end with a lovely, serene moment of the type she's been trying to have since the beginning.

It would be easy to read the piece as the victory of serenity over chaos, but I think it's more complicated than that. That virtuosic cadenza, I think, is the moment at which the violin allows the wildness to enter, recognizes that it has always been (and will always be) present within her, and begins to make peace with it. And in so doing, she channels it, harnesses it, transfigures it into something that's less chaos and more energy. And when you accept that you can't have only serenity in your life, the serene moments you do get are all the more meaningful, not only because they're unexpected, but because you haven't completely burned yourself out trying to force them to happen.

It's a lovely and profound piece which I'd love to hear again, and I need to explore Mackey's music further.

On Sunday, the Brahms festival continues with the second symphony, paired with Sofia Gubaidulina's Glorious Percussion, a concerto for five percussionists.

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