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[Updated] Music review: L.A. Phil chamber concert kicks off 'Americas & Americans' festival

April 7, 2010 |  2:00 pm

Music director Gustavo Dudamel was present in spirit Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall for the opening of his first Los Angeles festival as programmer, “Americas & Americans.”  The festival, which continues through May 14, began intimately with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing chamber music by Stephen Hartke, David Anderson, Heitor Villa-Lobos, William Kraft and Silvestre Revueltas.

America To make this large venue feel more appropriate for chamber music, players frequently introduce the evening’s program. Joanne Pearce Martin, the Philharmonic’s keyboardist, was especially insightful about the opening Hartke trio from 1997, “The Horse With the Lavender Eye,” and Carolyn Hove, the Phil’s solo English horn player, provided personal reminiscences for Kraft’s 1998 “Encounters XI: The Demise of Suriyodhaya” in the second half.

The festival’s concept, “Americas & Americans,” sounds a bit elusive. Dudamel has said it’s about “musical moments which unite North and South America.” But isn’t all music a mix of styles and traditions that cross borders? Hartke, born in New Jersey, offered a quirky and inventive trio, with nods to Bartók and Stravinsky. The Brazilian Villa-Lobos’ rhythmically vibrant “Quintet in the form of a chôros” is overtly Stravinskian. Only Revueltas, born in Mexico but who studied in Chicago, seemed to fit the idea fully. His “Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca” could only have been written by him.

Nevertheless, what really matters is the music.

In the Hartke trio, which Pearce Martin rightly said “has a bit of everything,” the opening movement was performed by clarinetist Lorin Levee, violinist Varty Manouelian and Pearce Martin on piano, with just their left hands. The subsequent three movements were just as dexterously rendered and rhythmically incisive, with Levee’s soaring tone a delight throughout.

Anderson, principal bass for the Louisiana Philharmonic, composed his Double Bass Quartet in 1987. It was a replacement for the scheduled premiere of Joseph Pereira’s work for amplified double bass quartet. Pereira, principal timpanist for the Philharmonic, had finished the piece, but requested more rehearsal time for its sophisticated pedal effects, where the ungainly instruments essentially become electric guitars. It is now planned for the fall.

Anderson’s score showed how somberly expressive the acoustic double bass can be. If it had a nationality, it would be Russian. Christopher Hanulik, Peter Rofé, Oscar M. Meza and David Allen Moore brought memorable vigor to every rumbling and tremolo sigh.

Kraft After intermission, Kraft’s “Encounters XI,” written for Hove and Raynor Carroll, the Phil’s principal percussionist, was hypnotic in a totally different way. For one thing, the piece utilizes 38 gongs. It’s “King Gong,” one jokester was overheard saying during the work’s stage set-up; another quipped, “It’s Gongs Gone Wild.” But this fascinating score, which displayed Hove’s amazing stamina and ability to locate lower and higher registers than normally practical for the English horn, proved spiritually invigorating. Kraft, 87, principal timpanist for the Phil for 18 of his 26 years with the orchestra, took his bows before an enthusiastic audience.

The concert ended with a bang. Revueltas’ 1937 tribute to the memory of the murdered Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, with its off-kilter, strikingly festive sound, relies on rhythm and color rather than sustained melodic lines. But it’s tuneful, even entrancing -- drunk with its own energy and madcap finesse. James Wilt's trumpet acted as a kind of narrator unifying the piece, with all 12 Phil members making a richly blended orchestra-sized impact.

On April 22, Dudamel returns to the Disney Hall podium for his first scheduled “Americas and Americans” festival concert, with works by Chávez, Lieberson and Bernstein. So far, so wonderful.

-- Rick Schultz

[For the record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Dudamel is scheduled to conduct the premiere of Hartke’s Symphony No. 4, “Organ,” in May. That piece has been postponed to an undetermined date. And an earlier version misspelled James Wilt's name as Wilts.]

Image of the "Americas & Americans" logo;  2008 Los Angeles Times photo of William Kraft