Dudamel and His Crew on Tour, in Pedal-to-the-Metal Mode

United StatesUnited States Andrew Norman & Tchaikovsky: Los Angeles Philharmonic / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 31.10.16. (HS)

Andrew Norman – Play
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Gustavo Dudamel brought his Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra on tour to San Francisco this week and launched it Monday night like a Titan rocket. In a performance notable for its power and precision, he offered two pieces separated by more than a century that showcased the technical mastery of the orchestra in slick, muscular mode. It was like driving a power car, heavy on the accelerator. Brakes? What brakes?

The program featured Play, a new work by Los Angeles-based composer Andrew Norman, and Tchaikovsky’s fanfare-heavy Symphony No. 4. Both composers share a flair for colorful orchestration, using the sounds of the orchestra for maximum effect. Tchaikovsky, writing at the crest of music’s Romantic Era, whips up big moments from the opening bars, blasting a stentorian fanfare that recurs at one climax after another. Norman starts with a torrent of sound, too, only it’s a cacophony that becomes increasingly complex before winnowing down to almost chamber music-like individuality.

If Tchaikovsky showed his command by mixing ensemble timbres and long solo lines against rich harmonies, Norman does it by scattering the musical argument liberally among individual members—almost literally. In the finale of his 40-minute work, single string players tentatively offer strands of a melody trying to form into a line.

In the program note and in pre-performance remarks, Norman described what his music was trying to say in Play. In the first movement, he said, the four percussionists discover that their playing has an effect on the rest of the orchestra. “They have the power to turn other players on and off, to make them play forwards and backwards, to trade them out for one another or make them rewind and try ideas…until they get it right,” he wrote.

In the second movement, he continued, the percussionists become increasingly manipulative, even sadistic, so that by the end, their antics freeze the orchestra into silence. In the final movement, musicians throughout the orchestra gradually return, at first one note at a time, then a few. Rudimentary tunes form, even some counterpoint and harmony, and then it all evaporates.

Even knowing that this was the idea, it was difficult to actually hear it happen in the orchestra during the first two movements. Sections started and stopped, musical gestures bounced among the instruments, but whatever connection there might have been with the percussion wasn’t evident.

In the finale, the effect of an orchestra coming to life hesitatingly had a certain drama, and some of the music was actually beautiful and haunting. But then it petered out instead of reaching a satisfying conclusion. Dudamel clearly was committed, and it’s hard to tell whether the work’s inability to communicate was due to the composer or the conductor.

There was no doubt who was in charge in the Tchaikovsky symphony. Dudamel got things revved up from the opening bars, driving the pace hard, but not too fast, and shaping phrases with subtle shadings of tone and rubato. But he seemed intent on ratcheting up each climax to the same degree, like repeated tsunamis.

The gentle oboe melody in the Andantino could have been executed more gracefully, and the pizzicato in the Scherzo could have trod less heavily, but the texture in these middle moments had a richness of tone and range of orchestral color that displayed the group’s strengths. Brass precision was a big part of that. The finale scaled its peaks with the same intensity as the opening movement, finishing with a rush of energy.

A roaring ovation elicited an encore—more Tchaikovsky, the waltz from Swan Lake. It had more charm and less bombast than the symphony, and sent everyone out with smiles.

Harvey Steiman

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