May 22, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, May 22 (Gubaidulina / Brahms)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Glorious Percussion (Anders Loguin, Anders Haag, Mika Takehara, Eirik Raude, Robyn Schulkowsky), percussion ensemble

The program:
  • Gubaidulina: Glorious Percussion
  • Brahms: Symphony #2
A note on nomenclature: The five percussionists here premiered Gubaidulina's piece in 2008, then joined forces to perform as an ensemble, naming themselves after the concerto that had brought them together.

And a note on programming: This concert had been scheduled to open with Brahms' Tragic Overture, but during rehearsals this week, they discovered that the percussion setup took a long time, and they didn't want to leave the audience sitting for that length of time, so the overture was dropped. Why they couldn't have performed the overture with the percussion already on stage is beyond me.

But there was a lot of percussion on stage. Dudamel's podium was surrounded by xylophones and marimbas; paired sets of Javanese gongs stood at either side on racks about 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide; and five assorted bass drums were spread across the front of the stage. A wide array of chimes, bells, smaller drums, and cymbals were tucked into every available corner of the percussionists' space.

There were a couple of instruments I'd never seen before (and I have no idea what they're called). There's an hourglass-shaped drum that's held against the body in the crook of the elbow; I assume there are cords of some sort along the side of the drum that are squeezed in the arm in order to increase tension on the drum head, changing the pitch; this drum had a spotlight moment trading jazz riffs with the double bass. There was also an instrument that looked rather like a loosely filled beanbag; it was played by tossing it from hand to hand, striking and swatting it in flight. It was like watching someone play with a cantaloupe-sized hacky sack, and sounded like a less agile version of maracas.

The guy playing the hacky sack was perhaps the best example, but all five percussionists were having great fun with the physicality of their performances. The two who played the passages for Javanese gongs got great humor from their differing sizes. He is tall with long arms, and played with his feet mostly planted in place; she is significantly shorter, and was lunging back and forth to hit gongs at different ends of the rack.

Gubaidulina does marvelous things with orchestration here, using the percussion and the orchestral instruments in unexpected and striking combinations -- harp and bamboo chimes, a series of ascending notes for bowed marimba that are taken over by the violins almost without you noticing. There's one moment where I could swear I was hearing a celesta, even though there wasn't one on stage -- high notes on the xylophone accompanied by flute and some sort of small chime, I think.

I couldn't explain to you the structure of the piece, and Gubaidulina's program notes aren't much help. "The central theme here is the agreement of the sounding intervals with their difference tones." Oh. Sure it is. OK. But what I do get is the sense that she's playing with the ways in which the orchestral and percussion instruments can imitate one another. There's that jazz riff for the basses and the hourglass drum; the piece opens with clusters of gongs alternating with similar clusters of low brass.

The piece ends in spectacular fashion, as the ensemble finally approaches those bass drums, which have been sitting there for half-an-hour like Chekhov's gun, and we get a magnificent cadenza for bass drums. A remarkable spectacle that brings the piece to a glorious ending, indeed.

Glorious Percussion is a striking piece that held my interest from moment to moment, and even if I can't tell you how, it does feel like a cohesive whole, and it would be interesting to hear it again to see if the structure begins to reveal itself or remains cryptic.

After intermission came the Brahms, and it was a delight (especially after the letdown of Dudamel's German Requiem last week). One of the joys of hearing an orchestra as good as the LA Phil in a hall as good as Disney Hall is that the full range of dynamics is available; the Philharmonic plays true pianissimos and fortissimos that simply can't be matched in a hall with worse acoustics. While they don't have a lot to do in this symphony, I was particularly impressed by the trombone section today, who made their every moment count.

Next week, "Brahms Unbound" continues with the 3rd Symphonies of Brahms and Gorecki; I am one of the few who missed the Gorecki during its weird little pop-culture moment 20 years ago, so I look forward to hearing it now.

No comments: