Saturday, April 17, 2010

LA Phil: "Casual Friday"

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Friday concert was a shortened version of the one on offer this Saturday and Sunday. Those two programs include the overture “Cyrano de Bergerac” by the obscure late Romantic Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar (one senses guest conductor Jaap van Zweden is out to do his bit to promote his country’s musical legacy), Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto, and Brahms’ fourth and final symphony. The Friday concert omitted the (probably unfamiliar to the vast majority of concertgoers) overture, and had no intermission. This seems to be in keeping with the night’s theme of “casual Friday”; the other charming and welcome aspects of this experiment are that the musicians were in casual/dress attire (no stiff tuxedo uniforms were on display), and a member of the orchestra, in this case contrabassoonist Patty Kindel, gave a candid and disarming brief talk about her personal history as a musician. This included an amusing anecdote about how she once made a dog’s breakfast of a contrabassoon solo in Strauss’ Don Quixote in a live concert led by Simon Rattle – “his eyes were like saucers”.

As both a musician and a concertgoer I am strongly in favor of less formal attire being employed, by both audience and performer. On this evening, I wore jeans as I always do. When I perform, I dress as close to that as I can get away with. I know of no reasonable explanation for the convention that we must all strive to make ourselves as uncomfortable and awkward as possible in order to produce or appreciate beautiful art. As it turns out, neither the players’ virtuosity nor their expression were dimmed by their choice to don skirts and slacks. And my sweatshirt seemed to inconvenience van Zweden not at all. I don’t know what was the cause of one horn player apparently having an off night, contributing more than his share of farps, but I’d be interested to hear anyone attempting to describe the mechanism by which his attire contributed to that difficulty.

The Rachmaninoff concerto, in F-sharp minor, was first on the program. The soloist was Macedonian virtuoso Simon Trpceski. I have seen video of him playing before, but this is my first time seeing him in person. He was in command from the opening octave flourish. I would characterize his technique as exceptionally fluid and facile. The bright passages of sixteenths had wonderful sparkle. As dense as much of this piano writing is, Trpceski’s Rachmaninoff never came off as labored or busy. He has the great gift, so often neglected in the modern Russian school, of retaining all the notes while still reducing it to the transparent textures which Rachmaninoff conveyed in his own playing. Only in one long thick passage of chords and octaves was there any impression that the soloist encountered any challenge, but that was apparent only to the eye, not to the ear, and it is a stunningly virtuosic work. Trpceski is also a competent ensemble player, sometimes looking out at the audience, but with an attentive eye for the conductor, and looking directly at soloists at key “ensemble” moments. Particularly thrilling was his immedate change of touch from the heavy cadenza of the first movement to the light descending arpeggios of the following coda.

I must say I liked this piece a lot more after this performance than I did before. It is a youthful work, completed while the composer was still a conservatory student, and polished in his 1926 revision. It is unjustifiably neglected, but one can only blame Rachmaninoff for writing three seminal concerto works which overshadow it: the second and the third along with the Paganini Rhapsody. This first concerto has much characteristic Rachmaninoff: melodies that move mostly by step and take long climbs to reach a high note and then subside. The final movement has clear and exuberant references to Russian folk music, with figures that are recognizeable to anyone familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture”. Rachmaninoff would later quote the finale’s coda in the corresponding passage of his Third Symphony.

I know the acoustics of this hall are much-lauded, but I found the piano a little muffled. That may have been partly because of my seat, as I was close and my head was lower than the performers’, and the structure of the piano and the hall directs the sound out and up. Also, it appeared to me that there is some unevenness to the keys of Steinway and Sons instrument used in this concert (my eyes were on level with the keys). This is mere speculation, but perhaps it is Trpceski’s pet instrument he travels with; I’d be puzzled that this would be the piano trotted out by the LA Phil for the star guest artist.

It seems to be that usually a second or third “curtain call” is required before an audience gets granted an encore, if one is prepared. Simon only got one, so if he was prepared for that contingency, we most regrettably did not find out.

Brahms, of course, like Rachmaninoff, was a stubborn Romantic in a changing musical landscape. But certainly, neither were merely rehashing old ideas. They had their distinctive styles and made their own voices. I surmise that the form of this grand symphony must be quite a challenge for a conductor to bring across in concert. True, Brahms has no shortage of opportunity for pure sentimental expression, but one must remember that among his many gifts as a composer, he was a master at form, and one must convey the arc of the individual movements and the symphony as a whole. Jaap van Zweden did so admirably. His own orchestra is the Holland Radio Symphony, which is second in stature among Dutch orchestras after the Royal Concertgebouw, and has a tradition of first rate musicians at the helm, including Bernard Haitink, Hans Vonk, Sergiu Comissiona, and most recently Edo de Waart. (I must confess I do not recall hearing of van Zweden before this evening.)

Music critic and KUSC announcer Jim Svejda is fond of characterizing many conductors of yesteryear as having great economy of motion at the podium, while producing an uproar from the orchestra, while he says the reverse is frequently true of modern conductors. I didn’t know quite what he was really talking about until I got to witness Carl St. Clair’s silly posturing leading the Pacific Symphony in concert, with over-the-top flailing of his entire body while producing a fairly straightforward reading of the music from the orchestra. Watching van Zweden, I had the inspiration to classify conductors according to what I’ll call a Svejda ratio. A mundane sound gives a low numerator, and an absurd visual spectacle from the conductor gives a high denominator, so St. Clair has a poor Svejda ratio. Van Zweden has a better-than-average Svejda ratio. His motions were fairly economical, and there was clear originality (but not idiosyncrasy), particularly in the formidable Brahms. He likes to form a circle with his thumb and forefinger and conduct with the connected fingertips. When he wants a particularly expressive vibrato from the strings, he sometimes gives a visual demonstration of vibrato (I only caught him doing this twice, so it did not get irritating). His indications of when to attack seem very clear, he makes very pointed motions at the right times. I noticed that the strings were incredibly precise in the fiendish pizzicatos in the slow movement, which one of course must also attribute to the greatness of these players as an ensemble. Van Zweden sometimes bounces with his whole body in time, but it is not an extravagant gesture and seems reserved for rhythmically appropriate passages.

The acoustics of the hall were kinder to the orchestra than to the piano. They would magnify a lesser group’s inaccuracies; one who is not spoiled by regularly attending LA Phil concerts is startled by the synchronization and tone these players achieve. Of note to me this evening were: in the first movement, the scary and mysterious passages of bare octaves in the winds, the poignancy of the cellos taking up the melody in the tenor register; in the second movement, the aforementioned pizzicato, a thrilling detaché from the strings in the B section, and a haunting string tremolo and piercing oboe solo before the retransition. In the march, the third movement, I was a little disappointed that the players were not more visibly joyful. Come on, it’s Casual Friday! Van Zweden provided some of his own smile, though. I found that the ominous slow leaps at the opening of the passacaglia finale were not ominous enough. They should be terrifying. The horn farps I previously alluded to were distracting. The final variations and very brief coda on an E minor chord, which I can only describe as “resigned rage”, moved me to tears; it was a little while before I could stand up and give the musicians their due. The audience kept bringing van Zweden back out until it was clear there would be no more. Maybe encores are proscribed on Casual Friday.

There was a brief Q&A following the concert, with Kindel, van Zweden, and Trpceski. Your intrepid amateur blogger got to hold the mic for one of the three questions they took. I told Trpceski he has my favorite recording of the Saint-Saëns concerto number 2, and he was a little startled. I guess maybe it is not commercially released; he inquired “Where did you hear that?” and I nervously said “I don’t know how you feel about the fact that somebody posted it on youtube…” as everyone chuckled, but I would like to think that he was glad for the exposure. My question was to ask if he is interested in championing any of the other concertos of Saint-Saëns, which are undeservedly underappreciated, as he has done for the Rach 1, and to ask him what other projects he’s working on. He said he’s a little tentative, since most of the others are very unfamiliar to audiences, with the fifth being somewhat known, but he thinks the third and the fourth are wonderful (I agree on all counts) and he would consider the possibility of doing one of them. For the second question, he said he’s playing a number of other warhorse concertos, but he has also recently recorded a new work by a Macedonian composer, whose name I did not catch; but I would like to hear that.

Another questioner asked about how he prepares for the youthful, naïve, brash opening of the Rach 1. Trpceski said that mainly one must not focus on the difficulty and be overcome by fear; instead, to focus on musical expression is paramount. As I am sure traveling virtuosos have demanding schedules and need their rest, the moderator then brought the evening to a close.


  1. Michael... yeah! You're a virtuoso writer! I'm not edified enough to embellish or call out any of your observations, but I did enjoy simply hearing the language flow, and hearing your aural observations. Shayne.

  2. Good reading - the newspaper should pay you to publish this kind of thing. It sounds as good (or better) than the program notes from the NMSO concert we saw last night (including a great performance of Wagner, Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde + Elgar's Enigma).