November 13, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Nov 13 (Ravel/Dubugnon/Rachmaninoff)

Semyon Bychkov, conductor; Katia and Marielle Labeque, pianos

The program:
  • Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole (2-piano version)
  • Dubugnon: Battlefield Concerto for Two Pianos and Double Orchestra
  • Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
A friend asked me after the last Philharmonic concert I saw what I thought of Gustavo Dudamel, and that question was still on my mind during today's concert. I found myself thinking about how the Rachmaninoff might have been different under Dudamel than it was in Bychkov's hands.

And the things that stood out for me in today's performance were not the same types of things that I normally notice in a Dudamel concert. Today I noticed the careful calibration of dynamics, especially in long crescendos and decrescendos; the impeccable balance of melody, countermelody, and accompaniment; the rubato passages with just enough give to walk right up to schmaltz without ever tipping into it. Ask me to sum up each composer in one word, and I'd say that where Dudamel is visceral, Bychkov is precise. (Which is not to suggest, of course, that either conductor lacks the other quality.) If I could only have one of the two on a regular basis, I think I'd prefer Dudamel, but I certainly enjoyed Bychkov's Rachmaninoff very much.

As for the rest of the concert, the Labeque sisters opened the program without the orchestra; the Ravel was performed very nicely, but I go to Philharmonic concerts because I want to hear the orchestra, not for 15 minutes of unaccompanied piano.

Dubugnon's concerto had its world premiere at this weekend's concerts, and I don't think it's going to have a long life. It is not an encouraging sign, I think, when the composer describes his themes as "jingles," as Dubugnon did in his pre-concert talk, and his concerto reached just about the level of depth and subtlety that word might lead you to expect.

Dubugnon divides his orchestra in half. Each orchestra has a small, but complete complement of strings; one orchestra gets the high winds and brass (and an electric bass), and the other gets the low. The orchestras and their respective pianists get separate musical themes, with which they battle back and forth -- the piece is a musical depiction of a military battle -- until the "peace and reconciliations" movement late in the piece, when the two sets of forces begin to trade and share musical materials.

The piece is flashy and pleasant enough to listen to as it goes along, and certainly the performance was everything a composer could wish for in a premiere. But I think everything the piece has to offer is sitting right on the surface, and never had the feeling that repeated hearings would reveal anything more.

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