No matter what kind of repertoire Gustavo Dudamel conducts, his insights seem to always revitalize well-known and new works – which became front and center at a Los Angeles Philharmonic Friday afternoon concert that featured Mozart’s last symphony, No. 41, K. 551, this composer’s first violin concerto, K. 207 and the world premiere of British composer Thomas Ades’ Inferno. Dudamel’s joie de vivre blows me away because music seems to flow from his arms, hands and torso out to the orchestra who embraces it and gives their all.
The so-called Jupiter symphony receives numerous interpretations, some of which use the old-school concept of phrasing in four measure groups. Dudamel offered a kind of new age Sturm und Drang that was kinetic, majestic and brought out oodles of sweeping passagework that flowed with rounded edge suppleness and subito dynamics when needed – all played with effervescent zest from strings, winds and horns. The group showed a fine display of balance and precision in the highly contrapuntal fugato last movement; they delivered a majestic spaciousness to the Andante cantabile and lilting swing to the Menuetto.
It is worth mentioning that the orchestra was configured with cellos in the middle circle rather than to the conductor’s right, which is the preferred arrangement in Europe. This seems to provide a cogent collaboration among players, especially in the downsized ensemble for Mozart’s violin concerto, a work he wrote at age 17- although he churned out symphony number one at age 8.
Michael Barenboim, the soloist in this concerto is a son of Daniel Barenboim and pianist Elena Bashkirova, who in turn is the daughter of the famous pedagogue Dmitri Bashkirov – and Elena in turn was previously married to Gidon Kremer and Daniel to Jacqueline du Pre. Quite a musical dynasty. Of special interest is Michael Barenboim’s association with Berlin’s Barenboim-Said Akademie and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by his father in 1999 to advance cooperation between young musicians of the Middle East.
Barenboim’s onstage demeanor is totally unassuming, refreshingly self-effacing and almost professorial in its seriousness – although he is only 34 years-old. His playing has an understated delicacy and intimacy about it, yet he certainly has the chops to spin needlepoint flourishes of notes with crystalline accuracy, as shown in the three cadenzas. While we can only speculate about the true nature of historically informed performances, his approach shows us the subtle side of virtuosity with no nonsense conviction.
Listening to a premiere makes us feel like we may be part of an historical or at least memorable event. Such was the case with the closing work, Inferno, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to honor its centennial celebration. Ades will complete the second part by 2020, which will be used as a ballet score with an initial debut performance by the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden in July at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The 40 minute work is a tone poem of lush orchestration and references to some of Liszt’s more reflective and eccentric compositions, including three written for the piano: Grand Galop Chromatique, Valse Oubliee, No. 1 and Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds.
Inferno consists of thirteen separate movements with titles like The Fortune-tellers and The Hypocrites. Ades writes pieces that can be on the cutting edge of controversy, have technical challenges but also a good deal of originality and aesthetic sophistication. (The Exterminating Angel and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra are among examples). Inferno draws you into a spectrum of atmospheric sound waves that include thunderbolt blasts from brass and percussion, haunting interludes from winds and silky humming from the strings, harp and glockenspiel.
The work presents a fascinating collage of tonal expression and clever paraphrases of Liszt, who in turn was a master arranger himself. The playing, especially from section principals, and conducting was delivered with unending brilliance. Ades joined Dudamel onstage to receive much applause from the audience, most of whom stuck around after intermission to hear a new work by an important composer of our time.