November 10, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 10 (Britten/Tovey/Shostakovich)

Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

The program:
  • Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
  • Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
  • Shostakovich: Symphony #5 
Tovey's trumpet concerto was not a premiere; it was something even rarer -- a piece of new music getting performed several years after its premiere by a soloist other than the one who premiered it. Songs of the Paradise Saloon is five years old now, and it's a spinoff of sorts from Tovey's opera, The Inventor, about the real-life Civil War-era con man Alexander Keith. One short scene of the opera finds Keith at Manhattan's Paradise Saloon, and Tovey has expanded some of the musical ideas from that scene into a concerto, in which the orchestra plays the role of the saloon's colorful denizens, and the trumpet plays the role of Keith, manipulating and maneuvering each of them. In musical terms, that becomes a sort of theme and variations, with the trumpet soloist bending, twisting, and altering the various melodies presented by the orchestra.

It makes for a fragmented and kaleidoscopic concerto, in which the soloist rarely gets a full-fledged melody, but is instead playing with fragmentary bits and pieces; there are frequent jazz influences, including a lovely passage in which Balsom and the orchestral brass, all muted, sound like a 40s swing band. As in any bar, multiple "conversations" are often happening at once, and they don't always quite mix; there's one striking passage where the oboes are playing a lovely waltz that's not really in the same key as the rest of the orchestra, and Balsom is ignoring them all with a series of frantic military fanfares.

The disjointed nature of the piece makes it hard to fully grasp on a single hearing; it's never unpleasant to listen to, and there are some fine moments, but I can't say that it ever gripped me strongly enough to make me long for a second shot at it.

The rest of the concert reminded me of how spoiled we are here in Los Angeles, where under Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, I've become so accustomed to thrilling performances that the merely excellent is almost a disappointment. Tovey's take on the Young Person's Guide was charming, and all of the Philharmonic's principals made the most of their moments in the spotlight. The Shostakovich was a solid, sturdy performance, but for most of the way, it felt slightly lacking; the Largo, for instance, had me thinking mostly of how heartbreaking it could be with a stronger conductor.

Tovey's interpretation came fully to life, though, in the final movement, especially in the coda, which was absolutely thrilling, and which brought the audience to its feet for a rousing ovation.

No comments: