November 04, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 4

Marin Alsop, conductor
Joshua Roman, cello
Michael Ward-Bergeman, hyper-accordion
Jamey Haddad, Keita Ogawa, percussion

The program:
  • Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra
  • Golijov: Azul
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 ("Pathetique")
When I was a kid growing up in northern Vermont, the local TV station (hello, WCAX-TV, Channel 3!) had a Sunday morning interview show called You Can Quote Me. It was sort of the Vermont version of Meet the Press, and its opening theme music was 30 seconds or so of a big, cheerful, brassy march. It sounded nothing like the country music my parents played, or the top 40 radio I listened to; it was exciting in a completely different way, and I loved it. That teensy little bit of music -- which was, of course, an excerpt from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony -- was my introduction to the world of classical music, so I was happy today to hear the piece live for the first time. And a fine performance it was, too. Alsop was particularly good at capturing the many contrasts of the piece -- its extremes of dynamics, its movement-to-movement mood swings.

The concert opened with Barber's Second Essay, which was a perfectly pleasant ten minutes, but didn't strike me as a particularly memorable piece of music.

For memorable, you had to turn to Golijov's cello concerto, Azul, which was a spectacular delight. Golijov's inspirations come, as they often do, from all over the place, but the most notable device here is derived from Baroque music. The cello is the principal soloist, but he's not entirely on his own; he's accompanied by two percussionists and a hyper-accordion (an accordion which is amplified and occasionally has its sound digitally altered) who form what Golijov calls a "21st-century continuo."

When the concerto opens, with a movement called Paz sulfurica, the cello is playing long melodic lines built around a three-note motif that seems to be constantly seeking, but never finding, resolution. You hear some of the ecstatic melancholy of Jewish liturgical music. The second movement, Silencio, reveals more of the concerto's Baroque influence; it's a passacaglia of sorts, with the cello playing variations over a repeated harmonic progression.

The third movement, Transit, serves as a cadenza for the continuo group, and it starts off in the same Baroque mood, with the cello playing rocking motifs reminiscent of Bach's cello suites. The accordion slips in with chugging chords, and the percussion explodes into a rhythmic frenzy, and suddenly Bach is fronting the happiest little polka band in South America. It's a glorious, deliriously happy moment, and the quartet made the very most of it.

The yearning motif from the opening returns in the fourth movement, Yrushalem, but it's finally given a resolution, an ending, and it becomes a gorgeous song. The piece ends with a short double coda (Pulsar and Shooting Stars), climaxing in a series of falling glissandos; the accordion has been altered so that it's not really producing pitch, just a breathy sigh, and as the rest of the orchestra fades away, the final sound we hear is one last long, slow exhale from the accordion.

It's a magnificent piece, and the audience seemed to adore it; there was far less rustling and coughing than is the norm at Disney Hall, and the continuo players were given enthusiastic ovations. There doesn't appear to have been a recording yet, which is a shame; I would certainly welcome the opportunity to hear the piece again.

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