September 30, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Sep 30

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

The program:
  • Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
  • Stucky: Symphony (world premiere)
  • Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Today at Disney Hall, it was a tale of two ovations.

We opened with Ravel. It's a very pretty piece, and it was very nicely played, but it's nothing but pretty, and it's the same brand of pretty throughout. It's like staring at pastel pink for six minutes. OK, fine, that's nice, what else can you do for me?

Then on to the premiere of Stucky's symphony. (It's a co-commission with the New York Philharmonic, who will perform it in November.) It's a 20-minute piece in four movements performed without break: Introduction and Hymn - Outcry - Flying - Hymn and Reconciliation.

It's not a piece about melody; there's not a memorable tune to be found. There are a handful of striking textural and color moments -- repeated sequences of long, slow brass notes that gradually build into grand chords; a charming brief passage for skittering mallet percussion -- and I didn't dislike the piece, but there was nothing that made me want to hear it again.

And Ovation #1 suggested that the audience felt pretty much the same way. A few people stood when Stucky came to the stage, but it was a polite and perfunctory ovation by LA Phil standards. This is an audience that is usually very generous to new music, and I've never seen a new work receive so tepid a reaction.

I did enjoy Stucky talking about the symphony in a pre-concert talk. He suggested that though you could hear it as a Mahler-esque hero's journey which might have been inspired by events in his own life, that wasn't a particularly useful way to think about music. "It's not my job as an artist to read you my diary," he said (paraphrasing from memory), "It's my job to put you in a musical landscape to which you can have your own emotional reaction, which may not be the same as your neighbor's."

After intermission, The Rite of Spring (and don't ask me why the Phil gives us the Ravel title in French and the Stravinsky in English, but it does). This was one of Esa-Pekka Salonen's signature pieces during his years in Los Angeles, so in taking it on, Dudamel is making something of a "this is my orchestra now" statement. (Stucky was a resident composer during Salonen's tenure, so there's another tieback for you.)

I don't think I've listened to the piece since my college music history classes, and I've never heard it live. It is an overwhelming experience, and today's performance was spectacular. It's the loud, banging, "primitive" rhythmic passages that people remember, but I thought the Philharmonic was particularly good in the quieter passages, and the winds made a particularly strong impression.

And the ovation at the end of this piece? Immediate, universal, thunderous, and by far the longest ovation I've seen at Disney Hall. Those who played key solo passages were acknowleged with extra bursts of noise, and the principal timpanist (the piece uses two) got the loudest cheers of all.

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