May 08, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, May 8 (Brahms / Dutilleux)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin

The program:
  • Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
  • Dutilleux: L'arbre des songes
  • Brahms: Symphony #1
The Philharmonic's 5-week "Brahms Unbound" series begins; over the course of the series, we'll be getting all four symphonies and the German Requiem.

The original plan had been for a new piece to accompany each of the major Brahms works, but the Philharmonic has run into bad luck with its newly commissioned works. Composers Peter Lieberson and Henryk Gorecki died before finishing their pieces (a percussion concerto and a fourth symphony, respectively), and Osvaldo Golijov didn't finish his violin concerto on time.

Those works have been replaced (mostly) with other relatively new works; filling in for Golijov today is Dutilleux's 1985 violin concerto L'arbre des songes; the title translates at The Tree of Dreams.

I'm quite sure I didn't entirely follow or understand the piece; it flows from moment to moment in what feels a very stream-of-consciousness manner, and the logical connections that hold the piece together were not always obvious on first hearing (at least to me). There are some striking moments in it, to be sure.

Dutilleux uses a large percussion section, mostly made up of instruments that ring and resonate for a good length of time -- gongs, suspended cymbals, vibraphone. They're often used to create misty clouds of sound that dissolve into one another as the solo violin floats in and around them. Effective use is also made of the cimbalom, an eastern European instrument related to the hammered dulcimer, and there's a lovely duet passage for the solo violin and the oboe d'amore.

The Academic Festival Overture was Brahms' thank-you gift after receiving an honorary degree from a German university, and most of its tunes are popular beer-hall drinking songs of the period. It's hard to imagine what the contemporary equivalent would be (if only because it's hard to imagine a modern university wasting an honorary degree on a boring old classical composer while Snooki is available to be feted). Perhaps it would be a medley of that year's popular karaoke hits, treated with slighly mocking solemnity, topped off with the school fight song. In any event, it's a charming and jolly piece, even if some of its humor is lost after 130 years.

Brahms' First Symphony is filled with moments of great drama, and the Philharmonic delivered on all of them. The brass section was particularly fine, and timpanist Joseph Pereira made such a feast of his pounds and rolls that he was cheered with great enthusiasm at the end of the performance. The big tune in the fourth movement -- Brahms' homage to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the program notes tell me -- is always a grand moment, and Dudamel took it slightly slower than I've heard it before, giving it remarkable tension and energy.

Next week: the German Requiem and Stephen Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing.

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