The LA Philharmonic rolled into town today, the first of six visiting American Orchestras as part of the San Francisco Symphony's centennial season. They brought a staggering amount of musicians with them, and not one, but two composers were in the audience, which was a complete sell-out. Talk about star power.
The American Orchestras programming features two performances on consecutive evenings. The first is to include a commission by the orchestra, and the second is designed to show the orchestra's core strengths. Tonight the LA Phil performed Enrico Chapela's Magnetar, which the orchestra only premiered for the first time three nights ago. Written for cellist Johannes Moser, it's a three movement concerto for electric cello and orchestra, and the composer has marked the timings Fast, Slow and Brutal. I can tell you one thing that was brutal was trying to make sense out of Chapela's program notes on the piece, in which he discusses flares, FXS and cosmic noise, but to me it just read like so much cosmic slop. Thankfully the piece he delivered is hugely engaging and entertaining. It's not deep, but there's a lot in the standard rep of orchestras that's equivalent to easily digested pop songs and no one seems to be complaining too much about that.
It starts out with a percussive introduction (including the rubbing and clapping of hands, stomping of feet and slapping of strings against the necks of instruments), before veering off into metallic territory reminding me of the theme music for Mission: Impossible. In fact this music is just begging to be used in a Darren Aronofsky film. The slow movement starts off in a loping Gershwin-drenched jazz rhythm and ends up somewhere to the left of Mancini done crunk. The brutal third movement starts off in metallic mode and doesn't let up, concluding with a theme introduced in the first. In the midst of all this there's a heavily effects-laden cadenza that goes in myriad directions. It's great fun, Moser was a kick to watch perform (he must have grown up watching Jimmy Page's solo in "Dazed and Confused" from The Song Remains the Same and now relishes being able to perform something in the same vein), and I'd love to hear it again.
The second half featured Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, played fast, loud, and in total control. If there was nothing Russian-sounding about it (indeed, it struck me as an odd choice), there were plenty of moments for Dudamel to show off the orchestra's skills. Underlying currents in the strings that are easily subsumed by the largess of the work came through cleanly articulated. The wind and brass were noticeably on, and the fire the percussion section showed in Magnetar proved to be no fluke. The first movement end with a thunderous oomph that most conductors would have held back on so not to eclipse the finale of the fourth. Not Dudamel- he let the orchestra tear through the entire work and when it concluded, it was with as loud a flourish as I can remember an orchestra making.
The concert began with a stirring version of John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Fanfare for Great Woods), which has never reminded me of anything having to do with nature, and didn't tonight, but it was an enjoyable ride nonetheless. Still, I would have liked a longer work from a composer who is so heavily involved in with both the LAP and SFS. Tomorrow night features more Adams (again a short piece- Tromba Iontana), another new work, Esteban Benzecry's Rituales Amerindos (Amerindian Rituals- dedicated to Dudamel) and Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony. It's sold-out too, but there may be turn-backs and it would be worth calling the box office if you're interested.
There was an encore, the opening of the third movement of Prokofiev's Classical symphony,which elicited some giggles from the audience (I thought it was from Peter and the Wolf). Dudamel, as expected, received a tremendous ovation, as did Moser, the orchestra, and Adams and Chapela, both of whom were in the audience. Moser will be performing the first Shostakovich Cello Concerto with the Berkeley Symphony on their opening night, October 27th.