October 20, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, October 20

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Anssi Karttunen, cello
women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

The program:
  • Debussy: Nocturnes
  • Lindberg: Cello Concerto #2 (world premiere)
  • Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
I have come to the conclusion that Debussy is a composer whose music I'm simply never going to connect to. It's well-crafted, and it's pretty, but for me, it's a very monotonous pretty, like staring at a canvas in eighteen impeccably chosen shades of beige, and it washes over me without making any real impression.

The Nocturnes are a bit more interesting than the other Debussy I've heard, I will admit. There are moments in the Fêtes movement that caught my ear, particularly a long crescendo that begins with timpani, harp, and brass, and the use of the women's chorus in the Sirènes movement is often lovely.

Magnus Lindberg's new cello concerto uses a small orchestra by contemporary standards -- double winds and horns; a single trumpet and trombone; no tuba, harp, keyboards, or percussion. The orchestral writing is dominated by the strings, though the brass have a few nice moments; they have a particularly lovely moment as the orchestra re-enters after the cadenza, playing a series of burnished dark chords.

It would, I think, take two or three more hearings to get a good grasp on how the concerto is put together. Those additional hearings would allow me to understand the piece better, and there are parts of it that I could even come to like; I doubt, though, that it would ever be a piece that I would love.

The highlight of the program was the Bartók, which I like to think of "Sugar Plum Fairies in Hell." It's a piece that mixes creepiness and brutality in fascinating ways, and Salonen brought out both in spectacular fashion. The percussionists were in fine form today, as they so often are, and the opening of the third movement was a highlight; the timpani playing blooping glissandos while the xylophone repeats a single note so insistently that you start to forget it's a pitched instrument and begin to hear it almost as a woodblock.

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