Sunday, March 4, 2012

Meanwhile, back in L.A...

Composer James Matheson
Not unlike Regis Philbin, I'm only one man. I can't be everywhere and was sorry to have missed the Los Angles Philharmonic's performances this weekend which featured a new work from composer James Matheson. Luckily man-about-town and bon-vivant Ben Vanaman stepped up to fill in the gaps with this report on Friday's performance.

Friday night was “Casual Friday” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is perhaps why Walt Disney Concert Hall sounded even more than usual like a tubercular ward, a chorus of hacking coughs providing an unwelcome accompaniment to the sounds emanating from the stage. In any event, this being “Casual Friday,” the Philharmonic players were dressed in jeans and flannel. When asked about his experience of participating in a “Casual Friday” concert during a talk-back that followed the truncated program (Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture, to be performed on Saturday and Sunday, was not part of this evening’s bill), the talented young conductor Pablo Heras-Casado who led the orchestra opined that the laid-back nature of the evening made the performance seem to him like a dress rehearsal. Well, exactly. If you’re a business executive and wear a suit and tie to work, you feel like an executive. Similarly, the wearing of formal attire surely abets an orchestra’s performance while giving its concerts a feeling of occasion, a quality that sometimes seemed lacking tonight.

In particular, the opening piece, a new violin concerto by James Matheson that was co-commissioned by the Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, felt slightly under-rehearsed. The concerto itself, however, was a dizzying ride, particularly in the frenetic opening movement (labeled Caprice) –with its swirling musical iterations- and the sprightly closing movement, titled Dance. Linking the outer movements was an intense, heartfelt chaconne that, like the rest of the work, gave the violin soloist a considerable workout (e.g. lots of double stops). The soloist on this occasion was the Philharmonic’s Principle Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, a musician I remain somewhat ambivalent about. His playing is technically adroit, but his tone can sound thin and reedy to me, a problem that besets the orchestra’s violin sections in general in my opinion, although I give consideration to the Philharmonic’s new music director Gustavo Dudamel for trying to summon a richer, deeper, and more burnished sound from the upper strings.

The orchestra has the good fortune, however, to have lured Chicago Symphony violinist Nathan Cole to become its First Associate Concertmaster. Cole’s extended solo in the program’s second offering –Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben”- was the highlight of the evening. He produces a beautiful, textured, achingly lyrical sound, and one hopes that someday he’ll be given the opportunity to be the featured soloist during one of the orchestra’s concerts. The Strauss also benefitted from the brio of Heras-Casado’s reading of the score. This “Heldenleben” really felt like a hero’s journey, gathering up in a cohesiveness that is sometimes missing from Dudamel’s interpretations of Romantic and late-Romantic period staples.

Joining Heras-Casado in the post-concert talk-back was composer Matheson, soloist Chalifour, and the Philharmonic’s brassy President, Deborah Borda, who moderated the brief, informal discussion. While the participants gave thoughtful and intelligent responses to questions from Ms. Borda and the audience, the moment that I remember most vividly was when Ms. Borda opined that she actually likes the applause that sometimes erupts following individual movements of concerti and symphonies because it indicates to her that the Philharmonic is reaching “new” audiences (“new” I’m guessing being primarily a euphemism for “young”). Never mind that such applause disrupts the continuity of performance or displays a lack of respect for the compositional integrity of the work being performed, but for an orchestra administrator to encourage such behavior rather than seizing the opportunity of a teachable moment in an attempt to thwart it is unbelievably appalling. All I could think of on the way home was this: where is Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine when you need it the most?

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