Los Angeles Philharmonic

Robert Spano, guest conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano soloist
14 February, 2009
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Varese: Octandre
Gershwin: Concerto in F
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3

By Fred Granlund         

This week's concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic provided a sort of snapshot of the state of the
music world in the 1920s and '30s. Pulled in different directions by progressive as well as conservative
tendencies and the influence of popular dance music and jazz, composers of the day turned out some
of the most colorful and interesting works ever created. The works on this program neatly
demonstrated the divisions and responses with works from the avant-garde (Varese's Octandre), rear
guard (Rachmaninov's romantic-but-modern Third Symphony) and outside the mainstream
(Gershwin's jazz-based Concerto in F).
Varese's tiny octet--his only conventional chamber work--is just as ear-stretching (to use Charles Ives'
term) today as it was in 1923, its peculiar sonorities achieved with an odd combination of wind and
brass instruments and string bass, and designed for the harshest possible contrasts rather than a
traditional classical blend. The Philharmonic players, led by oboist Ariana Ghez and clarinetist Lorin
Levee, gave it a detailed, polished performance under guest conductor Robert Spano, and were
rewarded with a semblance of enthusiasm by the Disney Hall audience. But for a composer famous for
the stunning sonic kaleidoscope of his big orchestral works, it isn't among his most successful works.
Communication remains distinctly muted, despite the valiant efforts of all involved.
By contrast, the work of a composer quite comfortable with his idiom followed on the program, as
pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined Spano and the orchestra for George Gershwin's Concerto in F.
Hard on the heels of his success with Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin was asked by conductor Walter
Damrosch to write a full-scale piano concerto--a considerable challenge for a young composer who
had never worked with the orchestra before. But the score was finished in only a few months' time,
owing to the fact that Gershwin didn't try to write a traditional "classical" concerto. Unlike Ravel's
slightly later examples, with his own brand of "classical" music tinged with jazz, Gershwin's music is
big-band jazz from start to finish, though scored for full orchestra and deftly molded into classical
concerto form. Soloist Thibaudet seems to like this piece more than the Khachaturian concerto he
played last summer at the Bowl; he had more time for introspection and even some improvisation,
rather than just concentrating on speed and brilliance. There was plenty of razzle-dazzle, too, matched
by the Philharmonic players easily adapting to the jazz style and contributing some fine moments (Don
Green's languid trumpet solo in the second movement at the top of the list). This time, the audience
response was warm and genuine.
After intermission, we were treated to Rachmaninov's most "advanced" major work, his Third
Symphony. While those enamored of the composer's lush, romantic earlier style would argue that his
inspiration was flagging in this and his other works of the '30s and '40s, it's also possible to detect a
genuine effort to keep evolving in the drastically changed musical environment of the time. The
themes are shorter, the rhythms punchier and the harmonies less conventional--but the craftsmanship
and attention to detail are ever more impressive. Conductor Spano, who has a very clear beat and
obvious rapport with the orchestra, led a nearly ideal performance, steering neatly between the
romantic and modern elements and lacking only its first-movement repeat and the last measure of
abandon implied by its 19th-Century heritage. The versatile conductor is now in his eighth season as
Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, and it's clear why they appreciate him there. The
Philharmonic played its collective heart out for him, and now the Disney Hall audience was ecstatic.
Christian Zacharias, James Conlon, Sarah Chang, Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic are on
the schedule for the next couple of weeks at Walt Disney Concert hall. As usual, tickets will disappear
soon and the wise will grab them while they can.
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