The Los Angeles Philharmonic warms up for its 2019-2020 season. Photograph by Larry Harnisch / LADailymirror.com
Under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened the 2019-20 season last night with a concert of familiar light classics. The music was all sufficiently modern, if mostly last century, but also sufficiently nonthreatening to audiences intimidated by more angular, dissonant, less accessible works. This was an all-American concert, though a meal of side dishes without a main course.
Correction: The Philharmonic, founded in 1919, began its centennial season in September 2018 and ends the celebration this month. A previous version of this review said last week’s concert opened the centennial season.
I went in part because Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times keeps cheering about the Philharmonic as “the world’s leading orchestra.” (Spoiler: It’s not). And because The New York Times recently referred to “the orchestra’s daring programming.” (Spoiler: It’s not, at least not last night.)
And I went in part as a tribute to Martin Bernheimer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, notoriously fussy, temperamental, sometimes raunchy former Times music critic who died last month and who left big shoes that The Times hasn’t bothered to fill.
There wasn’t a single piece on last night’s program that would be out of place at the Hollywood Bowl or at any pops concert. On my last opening night two years ago, I was puzzled by the curious choice of music: Two musical superstars, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (filling in for an ailing Yefim Bronfman) and Yuja Wang rather wasted on the Mozart Double Piano Concerto. Last night, the program was equally curious: Barber’s lovely “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” the Gershwin Concerto in F with Thibaudet, and Copland’s terribly familiar “Appalachian Spring.”
The only 21st century piece was the seasonally curious “Can Spring Be Far Behind?” (2016) composed by former Philharmonic Music Director Andre Previn, who died in February.
None of this is daring. But consider the programs of other major American orchestras:
–Up north, San Franciscans are saying farewell after 25 years to Michael Tilson Thomas, beginning with an opening night gala Sept. 6 of Glinka’s overture to “Ruslan and Ludmila,” Britten’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell” (that’s the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in Big Boy Pants), the choral movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, some Copland songs and Gordon Getty’s “Shenandoah.”
–The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti opened its season Sept. 19 with the traditional National Anthem, Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” the Grieg concerto (with Leif Ove Andsnes), Scriabin’s “Reverie” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6.
–Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic opened its season Sept. 24 with the Grieg (this time with Lang Lang as soloist), followed without intermission by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.
Correction: The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, opened its 2019 season Sept. 18 with Barber’s “Knoxville,” performed by Kelli O’Hara. The concert also featured the premiere of Philip Glass’ “King Lear Overture,” and selections chosen by van Zweden from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” This review erroneously refers to the philharmonic’s opening night of 2015.
These days, nobody is taking any chances, apparently. At least not on opening night. But that’s a topic for another time.
What, then, of the soloists?
Julia Bullock has a rich, lovely voice, perfectly suited to Barber’s pensive “Knoxville.” Supratitles helped at those moments when her diction hard to follow.
Thibaudet was Thibaudet. For the Gershwin Concerto in F, all you need to do is seat him at the piano and get out of his way, which is what Dudamel and the Philharmonic did. This is a fun, jazzy, piece, although I thought it cheeky and amusing for the orchestra out in the “cultural desert of Los Angeles” to open the season with a work that the New York Philharmonic uses as its signature piece. Well done!
The Previn was comfortably accessible with a few moments of more biting dissonance. Previn was many things in his life: Jazz pianist, film composer and acclaimed conductor. “Can Spring Be Far Behind?” taken from a line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” could easily be a pastiche of his film scores.
And the Copland.
“Appalachian Spring” is as common today as Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” was when I was a mere lad. It’s as inescapable as Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Pachelbel’s Canon used to be. As I listened to the Philharmonic go through the Copland, I wondered: “Is there a Los Angeles sound?” as there once was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “Philadelphia Sound.” (For anyone under 50, that’s from the days of Leopold Stokowski, the unsmiling old man in a tuxedo with crazy white hair you may remember from “Fantasia.”)
Last night’s concert was not really a fair test of the orchestra. Except for the Previn, the music was standard fare played in a standard manner. There were no surprises. I’m not sure there is anything new to be discovered in “Appalachian Spring” but if there is, I’m not sure Dudamel and the orchestra would find it.
Small complaint: Musicians’ mutes and various other objects clattered and tumbled to the floor during the performance, a rather unfortunate demonstration of the risers’ resonance.
If the Los Angeles Philharmonic is “the world’s leading orchestra” as Swed keeps cheering, it wasn’t on display last night. Nor was what the New York Times referred to as “daring programming.” And I miss Bernheimer. I could never approach his level of music criticism (or be as difficult as he could be at his worst). But I sure enjoyed reading his pieces.
ps. The decline — and extinction — of music criticism in American newspapers is, alas, a topic for another time.