Hungarian showstoppers took center stage at Disney Hall last night, in the second performance of the last concert program the LA Philharmonic is presenting in their 2015–16 season. The evening opened with Kodály Zoltán’s charming Dances of Galánta from 1933. Written on commission for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the Dances draw on Hungarian folk tunes collected from the area around the town of Galánta (which is now located in Slovakia, not Hungary), where Kodály’s father worked for many years as a station–master. An elegant work that combines rustic vigor with neoclassical grace, Dances of Galánta falls into two sections: a plaintive, lyrical introduction lush with delicate woodwind solos, and a breakneck dance that leaps and tumbles with endless agility. The Philharmonic covered this territory with supreme élan, making its numerous virtuosic pyrotechnics seem transparently effortless.
Underappreciated instruments tend to stick together, so as a bassoonist, I’ve always had a soft spot for works for solo viola. I felt quite vindicated in that stance with the next work on the program, Bartók Béla’s viola concerto, completed posthumously from 1945–49 by Tibor Serly, the solo part here covered by the LA Philharmonic’s principal viola, Carrie Dennis. Following a similar pattern to many of Bartók’s later works, the viola concerto begins mired in snarling dissonances and progresses over the course of its twenty–minute span through a transcendent hymn–like space to a rousing finale blazing with life–affirming energy. The scoring is thin, almost ghostly at times, but this only makes the tutti passages even more thrilling when they arrive. I have been impressed with Dennis’s playing on numerous previous occasions at the Phil — her sinuous interpretation of the solo in the passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes stands out in particular in my memory — but last night outclassed them all. Dennis played like a woman possessed, swaying and dancing with the music, at several points all but leaping into the air with the intensity of her playing. Bartók’s craggy chromatic lines can sometimes sound stagnant in less capable hands, but Dennis sculpted each of them into a gripping utterance, by turns lashing out, sulking away, and bursting forth with manic exuberance. Summoned repeatedly back to the stage by roaring applause, Dennis played an improvisatory paraphrase of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as an encore — it may have seemed an incongruous fit for the rest of the program, but given Gershwin’s interest in European modernism, I thought it was subtly, and cleverly, fitting. If you ever get the chance to see her live, take it.
Next, after the intermission, came Apparitions (1959), Ligeti György’s breakthrough work of midcentury European Modernism. If the Bartók was sparse, the Ligeti was almost not there at all — the piece is built from scraps of sound of almost vanishing quietude. The strings whisper a twisting line of microtones, the winds hold a pungent chord, silence punctuates everything. Even in the livelier second movement, which includes moments of loudness indeed, there’s still a sense of breathlessness, a sense that the music is only just barely clinging together, a hair’s breadth from disintegrating into nothing. For all this, though, there’s a profound feeling of cheeky joy just beneath the music’s surface. This is something of a signature in Ligeti’s works; even at his most severe and strident, I always have the feeling that he’s simply overjoyed to be able to play with such a malleable thing of endless possibilities as musical sound. Stuffy purists might have turned up their noses at the quiet chuckles that ran through the audience at numerous points during its unfolding, but I think they had the right idea.
Ghostly textures were cast aside in the finale, Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (1919/24). The story of the original ballet, with its blatant orientalism and undercurrent of sexism, hasn’t aged well, but the concert suite has held up somewhat better, even if the trombones at the Chinese Man’s entrance are still uncomfortably pentatonic. Unlike most of the rest of the program, this is a dense score, bristling with multi-layered textures and aggressive discords, summoning up a disintegrating world on the brink of collapse. (The scandalous première may have taken place in 1926, but the bulk of the composition was done in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, a time when artists of all stripes were reeling from the psychic shock of the blood–drenched pointless horror of that conflict and still grappling with what it meant to make art in its wake.) With shrill woodwinds imitating car horns and jittery percussion marking an unconscious body being tossed down a flight of stairs, this is not a comforting score, and the Phil brought it to life with a grim brutality that matched the ballet scenario’s grime. Shortly after beginning the work, Bartók opined that the score “[would] be hellish music”; nearly a century on, the demons have not lost any of their power.
[NB this review discusses Fascism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault. The views expressed are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of New Classic LA]
A gentle undulation in the strings, a murmur of woodwind melodies, the suggestion of burbling water under a quiet, rural sunrise. So begins Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1919 tone poem that opened Friday night’s concert at Disney Hall and helped secure the composer’s fame. Under the baton of John Adams, whose “dramatic symphony” with solo violin Scheherazade.2 comprised the second half, the LA Philharmonic gradually blazed to majestic life as Respighi’s focus shifted from dawn to morning to high noon before ebbing back into the stillness of night. Perhaps because of the conductor, I found myself focusing less on Respighi’s sweeping dramatic gestures (though the low brass were truly electrifying at the Trevi fountain’s climax) than on the small repeated figures that make up much of the musical texture. The Fountains of Rome is not a minimalist piece by any stretch of the imagination, but under Adams’s baton, it felt like it could easily be rewritten as one.
Dispensing with the opening tranquility of Fountains, the next work on the program was the second of Respighi’s Roman pieces, The Pines of Rome (1923–4). Despite its reputation as a flashy, even trashy showstopper, the Phil found a remarkable depth of feeling, the ghastly collapse from the giddy Villa Borghese to the gaunt Catacombs opening a yawning chasm of grief and loss. Between Tom Hooten’s offstage trumpet and Burt Hara’s delicate-as-breath clarinet solo, the Janiculum offered a harrowing path to acceptance and resolution before the Appian Way returned to end the first half with brilliant splendor.
Adams made a point to refer to this ending as an act of aggression in his speech to the audience after intermission, as though to imply that The Pines of Rome is part of the world of male violence against women that Scheherazade.2 is supposedly pushing back against. If so, it would be the only specific instance he pointed to outside the Middle East, a choice with an uncomfortable tinge of Islamophobia to it. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Middle East is a feminist utopia, but listing Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the only specifically named places where men commit violence against women plays into a pernicious trope that pits a more “civilized” West against a more “barbaric” Islamic world, blaming a religion for the evils of patriarchy and ignoring the history of Western intervention and destruction of progressive regimes in the area. It was not the only regrettable moment in the talk — at one point Adams seemed to imply that rape can develop into a healthy, consensual sexual encounter, which is a notion that cannot be condemned strongly enough. I’m not sure if that was Adams’s intent — I sincerely hope it wasn’t — but that it was unclear was one of many things that offered reason to doubt Adams’s full understanding of the feminism he is claiming to espouse.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that his piece was less charged that his rhetoric. The first movement was a slalom of irregular plonks and quiet rumbles, with the solo violin carving out jagged, irregular lines above the fray. In continuing his evolution away from minimalism, Adams seems to be picking up the mantle of texturalists like Unsuk Chin, though her tapestries cohere more and gleam with greater transparency than Adams’s offering — fans of his Naïve and Sentimental Music will be familiar with this language, even if the accent is altered somewhat. Towards the end, the music coalesces into a violent convulsion, the first obviously continuous line in the work.
Soft, overlapping string chords started the second movement, projecting less the violence Adams described than the religious ecstasy of Bernini’s Theresa. Likewise, the movement’s end was less a warm and heartfelt intimacy than a wan and colorless exhaustion. The third movement picked up where the first left off, violent unisons for the full orchestra alternating with inert lines from the violinist and discordant interjections from smaller sections of the orchestra. These included everything from a happily burbling conference of bassoons and oboes to a xylophone–led percussion display that could have come from a less avian Messiaen. This quasi-programmatic depiction of a group of “bearded men” condemning Scheherazade to death (because apparently beards correlate with misogyny?) was certainly rousing at times, but even by the end, Josefowicz’s lines were too abstract and disjointed to convey much in the way of noble resistance to an unjust fate.
Returning to a looser sense of narrative constraint, the last movement was the strongest of the four by far. Even so, despite Josefowicz’s consummate playing and some deftly intriguing klangfarbenmelodie between the tuned gongs and the cimbalom, the music felt sluggish and bedraggled. The whole piece clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and it does not make good use of that time. There are many excellent moments scattered throughout the score — surprising timbres, spot-on chord changes, intricate rhythmic games — but they don’t add convincingly to a larger whole. In fact, they don’t really add at all. They merely happen, in sequence, continuing on with no clear goal or direction. The moments are fresh enough to keep the piece from being boring, but they don’t gel well enough to make it actually interesting.
Even though Adams seemed to be being rather tongue-in-cheek when he described “The Pines of the Appian Way” as being an act of aggression, I think he’s absolutely correct in this. In 1922, the year before Respighi began writing that piece, Benito Mussolini marched his army into the city of Rome to stage a Fascist coup d’état. In that historical context, it’s not hard to understand why Respighi’s militaristic celebration of imperial triumph was often co-opted as propaganda by the Fascist regime. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this triumphal conclusion — all doubts are swept aside in an unstoppable wave of cymbals and brass — and it’s only later, on reflection, that the chilling realization of how easy it is for music to sweep away such doubts casts the resolutely upbeat ending in a more sinister light. (It is comforting to imagine that we would be able to see through propaganda and remain unseduced by its charms, but a piece like The Pines of Rome should give us pause.)
Sadly, Adams misses this subtlety. His villains aren’t the heroes of their own story, they’re just villains. There is no equivalent, in Scheherazade.2, of beginning to be moved by a rousing speech only to pull back in horror when we realize its central argument; everything is marked clearly from beginning to end. In a piece ostensibly about a clever, wily figure who uses plot twists and cliffhangers to change her fate, there is precious little wit indeed. It’s not exactly a moralizing piece, but it does move with some of the same plodding predictability, motivated less by guile and cunning than a worn–out sense of dutiful obligation. Adams has done better in the past; let’s hope he does better yet again.