March 25, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Mar 25 (Strauss/Aho/Sibelius)

Osmo Vänskä, conductor; Martin Fröst , clarinet
The program:
  • Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier
  • Aho: Clarinet Concerto
  • Sibelius: Symphony #6
I am not a big fan of opera. As much as I enjoy choral music, I never developed a taste for the trained classical solo voice, so opera and art song are not my favorite genres. As for Richard Strauss, I tend to find his pieces pleasant, and think how much more so they'd be at half the length. So if I'm going to be exposed to Strauss opera, a 20-minute orchestral suite is probably the best way to do it. And this was a pleasant suite, filled with gooey Viennese waltzes, lush strings, and dramatic brass fanfares. I wouldn't say I'm a Strauss convert, but better this than Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The highlight of the concerto was Kalevi Aho's clarinet concerto, which premiered in 2005 and is still getting performed seven years later, a fairly remarkable feat for contemporary music. It is a dazzling virtuoso showpiece, and Martin Fröst is entirely up to the challenge. The piece calls for rapid trills and tremolos, swooping glissandi covering the full range of the instruments, multiphonic techniques allowing the clarinet to produce two notes at once, and Fröst does all of these things with apparent ease. During the pre-concert talk,  Fröst talked about having had relatively little collaboration with Aho; they spoke once early in the process, then the score arrived several months later.  Fröst told Aho that some of what he'd written was unplayable and would need to be revised; Aho told him that this was the concerto and he'd have to figure it out, which he did.

Fröst is also a compelling stage presence, a slim blond in a black jacket with epaulets and white piping, equal parts Pied Piper, John Philip Sousa, and Sgt. Pepper. And he is not a park-and-play soloist; within his square yard of the stage, he's constantly moving, swaying and dancing back and forth.

Aho uses a relatively small orchestra by contemporary standards -- single winds and a tiny percussion section, with no particularly exotic instruments -- and the clarinet really is the star here. I often find myself noticing unusual orchestral effects when I listen to new music, but there was very little of that here (though there were some lovely quiet chords for xylophone and vibes in the Epilogo (Misterioso) that concludes the piece).

Is there anything more to the concerto than a showpiece for a brilliant soloist? I don't know, but even if that's all it is, it's a heck of a lot of fun on that level.

After intermission came the Sibelius Sixth symphony, which is a strange, restless piece. It feels at times like a "Music Minus One" version of a symphony, giving us all of the background and underpinning with none of the melodies; when melodies do occasionally pop up, they barely stick around long enough to be heard and registered, much less developed in any way. Movements seem to begin in medias res and end abruptly, as if Sibelius had suddenly gotten tired of writing.

The symphony is not without its charms, but those charms lean more to the intellectual than the visceral; this is not, I think, a symphony that people will fall in love with on first hearing. It certainly doesn't leap onto my list of favorite music. It's possible, I suppose, that there was something wrong with the performance and that the symphony is more ingratiating than it seemed today, but given the talent of the Philharmonic and Vänskä, and the skill with the rest of today's concert was played, it seems more likely that this symphony is just a prickly odd duck.

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