October 21, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Oct 21 (Adams / Chapela / Prokofiev)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Johannes Moser, electric cello

The program:
  • Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
  • Chapela: Magnetar
  • Prokofiev: Symphony #5
The highlight of the night was the Prokofiev, in which Dudamel emphasized the jittery tension of the piece. There was a constant striving for serenity that was never quite reached. Melodies were too brittle and angular (and everyone kept interrupting everyone else, anyway), chords and harmonic progressions were just a little too off-kilter, for calm to ever be attained. And always, there were the bass instruments -- double basses, tuba and trombones, contrabassoon and bass clarinet -- serving as harbingers of doom, grumbling out their ominous warnings. It was like spending 40 minutes in the chase scene of a paranoid thriller. And the mood of it stuck with me after the concert; I was looking over my shoulder all the way home. It was a marvelous performance, and I was particularly struck by the beautifully played clarinet solo in the 4th movement, a jerking little tune that bounces from high to low and back.

Enrico Chapela's Magnetar, getting its world premiere in this weekend's concerts, is a concerto for electric cello. The instrument is shaped like a cello, though only about half as thick, and there's no body to it, just a frame with a vertical board only wide enough to attach the strings. On the back of that board are the inputs for the sound cables. The sound goes into a computer where it is processed and altered in various ways, some of which are controlled by the computer, responding in real time to the cellist, and some of which are controlled by the cellist via several foot pedals. Chapela's inspiration lies in the fact that the e-cello is an electromagnetic instrument, so he wanted to write about the largest magnets he could find. That turned out to be magnetars, giant neutron stars that emit periodic bursts of magnetic energy.

The concerto is in three movements, which Chapela describes as "fast, slow, and brutal," and for the most part, he uses the electronic effects very cleverly. The third movement opens with a cello blast that has the distortion you'd expect from an electric guitar, and the Phil (especially the percussion section) is flat-out rocking behind Moser. There's a jazzy interlude where the cello trades wah-wah riffs with a wah-wah muted trumpet. Best of all is a delightful moment when the clarinet and brass suddenly become a swing band, and I found myself thinking "now, I know there's no saxophone in that orchestra" for about 20 seconds before realizing that the cello was doing a fine imitation of an alto sax's timbre.

The piece doesn't always work; the cadenza at the end of the first movement is a bit too blip-bleep-bloopy in the style of some early electronic movement, and Chapela's a bit too pleased with his own naughtiness in the rock and jazz moments. But on the whole, it's an entertaining piece, and I'd like to hear more of Chapela's music.

The opener was from John Adams, and I will confess that I have a blind spot where his music is concerned. But Short Ride is indeed short, no more than five minutes, and for that length of time, it's not actively unpleasant; it's Adams' usual bright and shiny chuggachuggachugga. I just wish it added up to more than bright and shiny.

If you're in San Francisco, Dudamel and the Philharmonic will be at Davies Hall on Sunday night with this program. Worth going just for the Prokofiev.

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