United Kingdom Tuning into Change: LA Phil Rehearsal and Concert II: Márquez (rehearsal), Bernstein, Beethoven: John Holiday (counter-tenor), Julianna Di Giacomo (soprano), Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo), Michael König (tenor), Soloman Joward (bass), London Symphony Chorus, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 4.5.2018. (CC)
Márquez – Danzón No.9 (2017)
Bernstein – Chichester Psalms
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, ‘Choral’
Open rehearsals are always fascinating: this one, on the morning of the Bernstein/Beethoven concert, with Dudamel conducting combined musicians from Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, centred around Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No.9. The event also housed the unveiling of Tuning into Change: A Youth Manifesto for the Arts, as convincingly, even heartrendingly, presented as could be imagined. Film sequences and the youth players entering, playing a variety of music (West Side Story among them). The manifesto took 42 young people from the UK (London, Raploch, Bristol) and LA aged 14-25 just over two days to put together and was developed by young people to underline the vital role of the arts in transforming society and individual lives. The idea is, in fact, a continuation of the passion for art as a transformative process of Dudamel’s mentor, the late José Antonio Abreu.
Márquez’s Danzón was premiered in Los Angeles in October 2017 at the LAPO’s CDMX Festival (it is an LA Philharmonic commission). An indication of the size of the combined orchestras is that there were six tubas present. After a full play-through came the dissection. Dudamel’s rehearsal process is kind, illuminating and yet brooks no musical sloppiness. His insights (it’s not the speed, it’s the timing, for example) were interspersed with metaphor: stories about what the music could be, about the nerves in a boy approaching a girl to ask her to dance (I wonder how many young lads in the orchestra that spoke to?) and about the ensuing dance itself. Dudamel is a natural communicator – the stories help the musicians understand the emotional basis of the music, imagined or not. As to Dudamel’s imagined musical markings, in this case col legno sostenuto, there’s a wonderful feeling of on the hoof combined with deep knowledge. An enriching way to spend a morning, in so many ways.
The evening concert coupled Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with Beethoven’s Ninth, two works with a pronounced choral slant that celebrate unity (the final verse in Beethoven’s finale states ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’). The Bernstein is sung in Hebrew, an ancient language with huge resonances for Bernstein (the Psalms in question are 108, 100, 23, 2, 131 and 133, in that order). The music itself is a curious, brave take on mystic texts, with Bernstein’s brightness being a central part of the first panel. The setting of the famous Psalm 23 (best known as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ here ‘Adonai ro-I, lo ebsar’) begins with counter-tenor supported by harps. John Holiday is a terrific counter-tenor (some might suggest more of a male soprano given the high-lying lines). Supported by the gentle London Symphony Chorus, this movement was an exercise in tenderness interrupted by the second psalm setting of the movement, from Psalm 2 (‘Why do the nations rage?’). Bernstein’s exploration of peace and war calls on the full gamut of his vocabulary, the rhythmic sections underpinned by bongos. The string cry that opens the final panel (a circus mirror-distorted version of the opening of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony perhaps?) was particularly heartfelt here, replaced in time by the warmth of the male voices of the chorus. A passage for two cellos (Principal Robert deMaine and Associate Principal Ben Hong) was particularly beautiful, as were real pianissimi from the choir just before the final ‘Amen’.
Like the Bernstein, Dudamel conducted Beethoven’s Ninth from memory. The technical excellence of the orchestra, so pronounced in the opening concert of the residency, was once more on display. The first movement was notable for its incisive accents, its perfectly together opening and the clarity of the orchestration at the fiery climaxes. The brightness of the upper strings was occasionally a bit too glaring, and there was some overemphasis (the violin/woodwind exchanges, for example). Only one tiny little corner of ragged ensemble stuck out, mainly because it was so lonely. Yet the feeling that this is an epoch-defining masterpiece was not quite there.
The Scherzo held perfect string entries. The rehearsal had shown Dudamel’s highly developed rhythmic sense; this was another aspect of that. Fresh, but minus point-making, with a glowingly rustic Trio, this was the finest movement of the symphony, the diminuendo over the final few notes taking us by surprise. The Adagio molto e cantabile, though, brought a particular bug-bear to light. Why, if the standard of the LA Phil is so high, do they assign the fourth horn solo to the Principal? It’s a fairly common practice, although not as prevalent as it once was. Again, a tiny ensemble glitch was emphasised by the prevailing perfection (the trumpets were ever so slightly behind at the end). More worrying was the opening of the Finale: perfectly accurate, but curiously tame. There was much to enjoy in this last movement, especially perhaps the huge voice of Soloman Howard (replacing the original soloist, Davóne Tines) who combined authority with a precision of pitch rarely heard in the bass solos. The blending of the soloists, each clearly carefully chosen, was a particular joy. Michael König is a superb tenor in every aspect. Julianna Di Giacomo’s bright soprano was generally of the gleaming variety – too bright on the final blossoming (‘Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt’), but elsewhere nicely balanced. The London Symphony Chorus, singing from memory, excelled.
Not since Skrowaczewski’s 2010 BBC Prom Ninth have I heard a coda so superfast in a live performance: 33 rpm to 78 rpm eschewing 45 rpm, one might suggest? Effective for the moment, though, and leading to (another) standing ovation.
Looking back over the two concerts and rehearsal, this has been a significant residency. It is the Bernstein, the Salonen, the Varèse and the rehearsal that will remain most firmly implanted in the memory.