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Gustavo Dudamel's West Coast, Left Coast concert

November 29, 2009 |  2:48 pm

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In politics, Californians still quarrel over immigration issues. The arts know better. Ours is a state made with the critical input of others. And if our music is characterized by one thing, it is its openness to outside influences. We look in all directions.

To scan the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast festival is to see the names of composers mostly born elsewhere. The festival’s first orchestral program was Friday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall and the three works were Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “LA Variations,” Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto and John Adams’ “City Noir” – music by, respectively, a Finn, Oregonian and New Englander who, each in his distinct way, adopted California and its elastic state of mind.

Gustavo Dudamel, born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, conducted. He just moved here in late September, when he famously became music director of the L.A. Philharmonic. The soloist was Marino Formenti, an Italian pianist who is Vienna-based and is known for his gleefully skillful performances of thorny German and Austrian new music.  

That meant an intriguing – and, perhaps, perplexing -- second layer of foreign influence. But first, a word about us.
 

On a holiday weekend, the philharmonic sold out three subscription concerts of exuberant, multi-stylistic modern music, our music, to eager audiences. I attended Friday and Saturday and both nights joined a crowd full of good cheer. The Dudamel effect obviously didn’t hurt, but there was more. The West Coast classical music inferiority complex is ancient history. We have our own tradition.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for instance, owns “LA Variations.”  Salonen wrote it for the orchestra in 1996, seduced by Southern California’s soft air, soft morning light and John Adams’ rhythms. The piece proved an instant hit and has become an L.A. Phil calling card.

Dudamel’s radical reinterpretation might be dubbed “East LA Variations,” the Latin mix. Salonen’s wont was to wryly sneak up to a synthetic folk-like melody that is the basis of his variations. Dudamel, on the other hand, brings out strong accents and makes Salonen’s machined rhythms danceable. He draws  garish color from a bright orchestra but also, through his favoring of thick sonorities, darkens the atmosphere. He turns up the volume full force and squeezes big chords dry. By the second performance, which was ever so slightly toned down, I was, I think, on board.

Ktt22snc If Harrison’s irresistibly lyrical Piano Concerto, from the mid-‘80s, has been having far too much trouble getting a foothold in the repertory, the composer, who died in 2003, was partly to blame. He required an obscure Baroque-era tuning system that typically freaks out orchestra musicians (“freak out,” of course, being a technical term in California music).

Harrison used an orchestra of strings, trombones, harp and percussion, since they either don’t have fixed pitches or can be readily retuned. The sound is pungent, sweet, different. Elizabethan, Indonesian and Native American musics breathe the same perfumed air. Harrison was a generous spirit.

The concerto was written at the request of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who has played it little and made a lousy recording of it in Japan. Dudamel and Formenti are both new to Harrison, and the orchestra has had little experience with his music or alternate tunings. All concerned sounded somewhat at sea Friday night.

But Saturday magic arrived when the expansive Asian-Californian fusion opening tune found its sweep. In the high-stomping second movement, which Harrison called a “Stampede,” he asked the pianist to bang the keys with a large board in duet with drums. Formenti is a showman and delightfully used palms and forearms instead.

On both evenings the orchestra tended to lose its tuning; there were synchronization problems, and the strings played with too much vibrato. But the wondrous slow movement took my breath away. Formenti suspended chords in the air like bells in the clouds of lush string sonorities.

The performance of “City Noir” was also something very changed from six weeks ago when the orchestra premiered Adams’ score at Dudamel’s opening-night gala. That performance was tense, and the roiling, dense half-hour symphony meant to evoke the L.A. of noir films in the ‘40s and ‘50s, easy to respect but hard to scan.

Now it is a big thrill. Dudamel has increased the wattage and the various threads of Gershwin, Milhaud and Stravinsky all merge into a jazzy, driving, powerful whole, making it another great California hybrid.

Unfortunately, the gala performance is the one that went out to the world on radio, television and the Internet. A DVD of that concert will be released in two weeks, and the Disney shop has advance copies.  They’re already out of date. Trying to capture Dudamel on DVD is like stopping a speeding bullet. But that’s California too -- ever changing.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Top, Marino Formenti performs Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. Below, Gustavo Dudamel accompanies Formenti. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

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