Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, October 23, 2011
The Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Johannes Moser, electric cello
Adams—–Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Prokofiev–Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100
Once upon a time, not too long ago, listeners might have resisted accepting on credit the notion of a conductor performing new music charismatically. For many decades, full-house audiences (at those moments desperately wishing themselves sparse) tended to squirm patiently through modern works, waiting for ever more elusive harmony or so much as a symphonic phrase, the experience more to be withstood than understood. Dodecaphonic compositions, in particular, constituted toll-booths on the musical freeway: to be bought off as taxation, passed-through and, if lucky, forgotten. Certainly not to be loved.
Gustavo Dudamel’s recent visit with the Los Angeles Philharmonic serves to remind one that those days appear happily to be over. The contemporary first half of his Saturday program was fully as enjoyable in its own right as the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony which followed intermission…and the acclaim for Johannes Moser’s mere silhouette of an electric cello and its neon sound, as spontaneous as if it had been for Rostropovich playing Saint-Saens.
Say what you will about the odd programmatic impulses that serve to inspire composers—wars, legends, heros, locomotives—in this case automobiles and pulsars. If the resulting sounds don’t ebb and flow in some manner the human body recognizes as a living process, it won’t be music. For the ear to take coherence from it, sounds must reveal effort, mass and movement, something connected with breathing and the flow of blood, the fading-in and fading-out of nerve sensation, the coming and going of moods, and a sense of dimension and inertia affecting every move we make.
The curse of the twelve-tone era was a substitution for this of curiously weightless loud and soft moments originating from nowhere, going nowhere and representing nothing. In the end, as it turns out, Caspar the Ghost would have outlined more substance and the evanescence of fog catalyzed more genuine excitement, whether arriving on cat feet or not.
John Adams was among the first contemporary composers to reconnect audiences with the lost emotional and physical link to emotion in music. “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” dates from an early minimalist phase in his evolution. But the ideals of mechanical engineering are inherently minimalist, so it was always a perfect match. It is easy to hear this piece and imagine oneself in a wide low sports car, with a growling engine and alarmingly instant brakes. But the music is just what it says. Go back two hundred years to Rossini, and we’d be accompanying William Tell on a rather large and out-of-control horse. Whether Adams’ music demonstrates quite that degree of lasting power remains to be seen. But it is the same sort of thrill.
Gustavo Dudamel, no surprise, was almost instantly ignited, along with the engine, and one could hardly have wished for a more combustible performance from him and the orchestra. The Los Angeles Music Director remains very much in touch with his “inner Mambo,” as listeners by now gleefully anticipate, but except for where the music really calls for it, he exhibits, if anything, a certain restraint. For one thing, Dudamel never turns far left or right to show his profile. I’m certain this is deliberate. Much of the time he is nearly motionless viewed from the audience, and a lot of his conducting manages to be out of sight. All the more effectively, of course, to come to life at certain critical moments!
The unexpected delight of the evening was Enrico Chapela’s Concerto for Electric Cello and Orchestra, otherwise known as MAGNETAR. Dudamel had given the world premiere in LA just three days before. Inspired by pulsars and a complex program of astrophysical events, it could easily have been deadly to listen to. (The locus classicus of pulsar music is Gérard Grisey’s Le noir de l’étoile—Ed.). When Johannes Moser arrived with the cartoon outline of a cello in his hand and plugged it into a loudspeaker on the floor, the audience might have been forgiven for wondering if the bad old days had returned. Not to worry.
True to his instincts, Gustavo Dudamel has managed to unearth a contemporary piece of outer-space music containing, you guessed it, a Mambo! The composition has three movements, which the composer describes as “Fast , Slow and Brutal.” But within their normal concerto-length span, the listener encounters the following: a West Side Story street-gang rumble on a cosmic scale; a “Come to the Kasbah” slow movement; a cadenza for shortwave radio, and a finale suggesting Bartók on a trip to India. If that isn’t unusual enough, the work slithers into being through the nearly inaudible rubbing of hands and shifting of feet on the stage floor.
Had a piece of music so described been written by Charles Wuorinen, not one moment of it would be listenable. But as it happened, the sense ebb and flow, of spaciousness in Chapela’s music—its movement—might as well have been supervised by Holst or Respighi. For all its eclecticism, this concerto is a thing of beauty, its sounds chosen to please as well as describe. The mega-atomic blasts in Chapela’s cosmos are made sonorous. They come and go as easily as Schubert, taking their time to unwind. And it would be hard to imagine any improvement in Johannes Moser’s playing. The cello part manages to intrigue without overkill, despite its amplification. The new concerto was received with genuine enthusiasm, so much so as to remind one how rare that used to be.
Dudamel was in fine form with the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony after intermission. The Los Angeles Philharmonic strings brought out some of the rich Brahms DNA I’ve always felt lies just beneath the surface of the piece, and a gleaming brass section, held back powerfully at critical moments, supplied sonorous climaxes. This was a traditional, big-boned Dudamel performance, but the conductor seems to have come a considerable distance in subtlety and confidence. Textures were more transparent than a year ago, and self-conscious gravitas and caution were no longer apparent. Viewed from here, Los Angeles and Dudamel have a lot to celebrate. And indeed, the hall was packed. Dudamania is alive and well in San Francisco. That is no cause for complaint.