On Friday night, Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted the U.S. Premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra: en forme de pas de trois. Under the baton of Susanna Mälkki, the Los Angeles Philharmonic skillfully navigated the work’s technical and conceptual challenges in a thoughtful marriage with Tero Saarinen’s choreography.
True to its title, Zimmermann’s concerto utilizes the parings and structure suggested by the pas de trois: five movements—starting with an introduction and concluding with a coda—present the three dancers in various combination. The significance of “three” was prevalent throughout, not only in the cleanly-partitioned triangular spaces of the dancers, but in the shape of the props, the lighting design, the staging, and the layout of the orchestra. Originally scheduled to be performed by Robert deMaine, the cello solo was divided among three cellists: Ben Hong, Eric Byers, and Timothy Loo, whose own choreography cycling through the solo stand furthered an sense of tripartite structure. With the added element of dance, the concerto took the form of a three-way conversation between solo, ensemble and body.
The music reflected the range of textures one might expect more from a ballet than from a mid-century modernist work. Mälkki offered an intelligent interpretation, painting an eerie modernist landscapes propelled by energetic outbursts and percussive cello episodes. The balance of soloists and orchestra maintained a certain intimacy which traded easily with the dancers; only in the penultimate march did the music’s intensity momentarily seize full attention. The later sections added to the weight of tutti passages with a sense of familiarity: where the early movements showcased Zimmermann’s sensitivity to pace and silence, the march and blues movements looked to outside musical influences for thematic material. Committed and virtuosic performances by each of the soloists pulled attention in still one more direction, instilling the work with a frenetic energy that, along with the staging and dance, kept the audience enraptured from beginning to end.
In addition to the lights and stage design, the premiere benefitted from its pairing with the other works on the program. Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercar spun out Bach’s fugal entanglements with a delicate, admiring glance over the shoulder, while Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony peeked into the future by combining romantic gesture with complex timbral swaths. Together, they framed the Zimmerman in a way that highlighted its internal stylistic contrasts and diversity as a key feature, making it feel exploratory while also cohesive. For the LA Phil, this concert was not only musically successful, but another example of how their attention to programming and staging makes each performance stand out.