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Monday, March 17, 2014

Concert Review: The Crimes of a Century

The Los Angeles Philharmonic returns to Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Speaks with his hands: Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.
Photo by Luis Cobelo © 2014 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group.
The return of conductor Gustavo Dudamel to New York is always a momentous occasion. Sunday's concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall featured two heavy-weight symphonies that stand one century apart: the Symphony No. 1 of New York composer John Corigliano and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5., a perennial audience favorite. Outside, a small group of protestors congregated to remind concert-goers of the dangerous conditions in Mr. Dudamel's native Venezuela.

Inside, the conductor and his orchestra had other concerns.

Mr. Corigliano wrote his First Symphony (subtitled "Of Rage and Rememberance") as a response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. This four-movement work for large orchestra was written following Mr. Corigliano's viewing of the AIDS Quilt in 1988. It is a study in grief and a stark examination the ugly reality of the deaths of thousands in the epidemic and its decimation of the gay community in the United States. Tchaikovsky's Fifth was written as the composer struggled with his own homosexuality, a taboo in the even more repressive Russian society of the 19th century. As that country is currently engaged in an effort to whitewash the truth about Tchaikovsky's sex life, the pairing made an awful lot of sense.

The First opens with slashing, terrifying chords in A, sounded in the brass and winds and underpinned by the percussion. These fortissimo blasts have a similar effect to the hammer-blow in Mahler's Sixth, serving as a perpetual reminder of the harsh reality of this disease. Mr. Dudamel led a bold, uncompromising account of this movement, as Mr. Corigliano's inventive orchestration recalled the sparkling work of Richard Strauss at his most experimental. (There is even a quote of the descending four-note theme from Die Frau ohne Schatten at one point.)

The second movement is a Tarantella. This dance of death featured a cheeky Till Eulenspiegel-like clarinet tune, dodging  the heavy blows from the orchestra before meeting its end in a strangled, nightmarish scream. For the third,  a  Chaconne started, with a single cello leading the entire orchestra in a constantly self-propelling ground bass. The movement drove forward until the entire theme was sung out by the orchestra in a  moving threnody. The brief Epilogue (played without pause after the third movement) reprised key themes from the three preceding movements, bringing the work to a contemplative close.

From the soft bass clarinet theme that opens the Tchaikovsky Fifth, Mr. Dudamel led his forces in a big-shouldered, muscular performance that emphasized the heroic struggles in this music. The Los Angeles strings laid down a rich carpet and the brass section stomped all over it, with the conductor exhorting his players into a merry frenzy of sound. The high quality of horn playing and precision woodwinds made this a compelling performance of this too-familiar work, played slightly fast to increase the dramatic tension.

The slow movement that followed provided the audience its best chance to hear the high quality of the woodwinds and horns as Mr. Dudamel showed the benefit of his long experience leading this popular work. This was a slow, thoughtful performance, taking exquisite care to maintain the singing line of this movement. The light-weight dance movement served as needed relief before a final movement that was filled with brash energy and bright, bold colors played at a sprinting, almost frantic tempo.

Following the thunderous reception from the Tchaikovsky-loving Sunday afternoon audience, Mr. Dudamel returned to the poem for an encore: the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. The L.A. players obliged with a burly performance of this tripartite dance from that famous opera, spurred forward by the smiling Mr. Dudamel. It was a perfect palate-cleanser to end the performance.

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