January 06, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, January 6

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Martin Grubinger, percussion

The program:
  • Tan Dun: The Tears of Nature
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4
Something of an off day from the Philharmonic, I thought, particularly in the Tchaikovsky, which felt rather slack and disjointed, and was marred by a few flubbed notes in the brass (and there are a lot of big, dramatic brass entrances in this one). The pizzicato strings in the third movement were lovely, and the wind soloists throughout were in top form.

The first half of the program was the US premiere of Tan Dun's percussion concerto The Tears of Nature. Martin Grubinger gave a delightfully energetic and passionate performance, but I don't think the concerto is a particularly interesting piece.

The focus tends to be on one instrument at a time. Grubinger spends most of the first movement on the timpani at the back of the orchestra, though there is a lovely passage for stones at the very beginning. The second movement is principally for marimba. It's only in the third movement that Tan Dun seems to remember that he's got a whole array of instruments at the front of the stage, and lets Grubinger go to town; there's a delightful passage of perhaps 90 seconds which requires Grubinger to hold a rainstick in one hand (turning it every three or four seconds to keep the sound going) and two mallets in the other, bouncing from side to side of his rectangular array of instruments to keep the melody going on marimba, vibes, glockenspiel, tom-toms, and gongs.

This is very much a showpiece for the soloist, with the orchestra very much in the background. There's an occasional interesting orchestral moment -- a pretty melody that the alto flute shares with the marimba, some glissandoing tone clusters in the oboes and clarinets that sounds like a braying donkey -- but it's Grubinger's show, and he's great fun to watch. He plays with great fluidity, to the extent that you sometimes wonder if the bones have been removed from his arms.

After the concerto, Grubinger spoke briefly about his fondness for American marching bands (he's Austrian), and gave us an encore on the snare drum, wringing every imaginable sound, and a few I never would have imagined, out of the instrument.

Happy to have seen Grubinger, but otherwise not one of the Phil's best outings.

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