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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, guest conductor
Rudolf Buchbinder, piano soloist
6 December, 2008
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Kurtag: Stele
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23
Strauss: Alpine Symphony

By Fred Granlund         

For his second week of concerts with the Philharmonic this month, Music Director-designate Gustavo
Dudamel kept to the same formula as last week: a classical favorite, a contemporary Hungarian work and,
occupying a sort of middle ground between those extremes, a major work by Richard Strauss. In both cases,
it was Strauss who provided the highpoint of the evening, though he had stiff competition from Beethoven
(last week) and Mozart (this time around).
The Hungarian work this time was Gyorgy Kurtag's Stele, a memorial to fellow composer Andras Mihaly. It
has a quite recognizable shape and touches on all the expected emotional states (grief and loss at the
outset, anger and despair in the agitated central section and, finally, resignation and stoic resolve). But its
impact is muted by an overlay of quarter-tones and clusters which blur its potent motives and stringent but
effective tonal relationships. Thank heavens the days are past when composers felt they had to make their
music sound "modern" in order to be accepted by academia. Maestro Dudamel and the much-expanded
orchestra invested Kurtag's lament with all the passion and intensity one could imagine; taken seriously, it
makes it point.
The familiar element came mid-program in the form of Mozart's second A-major Piano Concerto (K. 488)
with Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist. Even among the polished gems of Mozart's output that year (1786), this
concerto stands out with its memorable themes, perfect balance of emotions and exquisite scoring (with flute
and clarinets replacing the usual oboes, and bassoons adding depth). Though he had tapped new reserves
of drama and brilliance in his previous concerti, here Mozart's writing is marked by an intimacy and depth of
feeling seldom encountered elsewhere, particularly in the elegiac F-sharp minor siciliana at the heart of the
work. Soloist Buchbinder, a specialist in the classical Viennese repertoire who has recorded all of Mozart's
concerti (along with the complete sonatas of Haydn and Beethoven, etc.) justified his reputation once more
on this occasion with a reading of great delicacy and real poetry. He steadfastly refused to succumb to the
common tendency toward "sewing machine Mozart," even in passages merely accompanying the orchestra,
with a constant supply of subtle rubato and dynamic inflection. The chamber-like interplay with the
orchestra's wind soloists--Catherine Ransom, Michele Zukovsky, and Shawn Mouser--was particularly
felicitous, reminding us once again of the amazing intricacy of Mozart's music, as well as the sensitivity and
imagination of our "home team" players. The detail-obsessed listener might harbor a couple of minor
reservations, such as the common misreading of the grace-note in the finale's second episode (4th bar) as
an appoggiatura, thus blurring the carefully-established D-major tonality, or the soloist's failure to fill in the
skeleton of the theme in the slow movement's pizzicato-accompanied final reprise, where Mozart would have
provided a tasteful improvisation--but those are musical judgements on the part of the soloist. As far as
actual execution is concerned, perfection is theoretically impossible to achieve, but this performance
couldn't be told from the real thing.
Following intermission, a band of over 100 players--even more than the vast assemblage required for the
program's opening work--collected onstage (and offstage) for Strauss's aural travelog of a day of mountain
climbing in the Austrian Alps. Between "Sunrise" and "Night" (once again, the printed program failed to
provide any guidance as to the various sections of the work) we were transported across sunny fields and
treacherous glaciers and through a ferocious thunderstorm, on a glorious ascent and perilous descent of
Strauss's imaginary Alpine peak. Through it all, the orchestra--augmented by wind machine, thunder sheet,
organ, Wagner tubas and heckelphone (honest!)--responded to the composer's every extravagant demand
with its customary enthusiasm and polish, and Maestro Dudamel seemed to be having the time of his life. It's
hardly an example of Strauss's greatest music (such as the "Four Last Songs" heard on last week's
concerts) but it has its lovely moments and makes a spine-tingling racket at its frequent climaxes. It takes
much concentration, not to mention virtuoso skill and sheer stamina, to bring it off, and our orchestra takes
it all quite in stride. If it turned out that the wind machine and thunder sheet were mostly inaudible (even the
famed Disney Hall acoustics have their limits!) things were sufficiently windy and thunderous during the
storm, anyway, thanks to Strauss's vividly cinematic treatment. Not surprisingly, the audience wouldn't let the
modest Maestro retire without giving a solo bow to nearly everyone on the stage--which he avidly did and
they richly deserved. Now, if only we could persuade the program book editor not to leave us to try to follow
these extravaganzas without a map. . .
Next week, Marin Alsop brings a modicum of sobriety back to Disney Hall with an all-Brahms program
featuring violinist Nikolai Znaider. Strongly recommended, as always; tickets at the usual places, and don't
forget the $10 student/senior rush seats available shortly before each concert--still the best bargain in town.