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Music review: Semyon Bychkov conducts Mahler's Fifth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

April 2, 2010 |  1:41 pm

Semyon Last week, Valery Gergiev led his touring Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. On Thursday night, 40 miles away at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Semyon Bychkov led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Another week, another Russian, another hyper-expressive Mahler Fifth.

The coincidences are many. On both occasions, the symphony -- 75 minutes in Gergiev’s fluttering hands, 70 in Bychkov’s wildly waving arms -- was the only work on the program. The two conductors happen to be close contemporaries: Bychkov was born in 1952 in St. Petersburg; Gergiev, an Ossetian who has become St. Petersburg’s current cultural icon, is five months younger. Both studied conducting with Ilya Mushin, a famed Russian pedagogue. Both got important career boosts from Herbert von Karajan. Both came to Mahler backward, through Shostakovich.

But there the similarities seem to end. A political animal, Gergiev has used whomever is in power to empower his art. The more outspoken Bychkov made a necessary early exit from the Soviet Union in 1974, building a career with orchestras in Buffalo, New York; Paris; and Cologne, Germany.

Gergiev is seen today as the most Russian of conductors. Bychkov conveys a more international outlook. He is married to the French pianist Marielle Labeque. He has been a fine champion of contemporary music.

Later this month in Cologne, for instance, Bychkov will premiere a new cello concerto by the profoundly meditative Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, who lives part of the year in Glendale. When Bychkov conducts the Mahler Fifth with the Chicago Symphony in May, he will precede it with Detlev Glanert’s “Theatricum Bestiarum.”

A bare Mahler symphony at the L.A. Philharmonic, where there has been little new in the four months that Gustavo Dudamel has been away, was uncharacteristic. But given the orchestra’s committed playing Thursday, Bychkov’s modern approach to the symphony and what looked like close to a 100% standing ovation, it is unlikely management will get angry letters about too little music.

There are many ways to approach Mahler, whose idea of the symphony was as a messy and novelistic window into the world. In the first four of his nine completed symphonies, the composer implied high-minded, angst-ridden narrative programs. But there is so much complexity and ambiguity in these bottomless works that no road map is possible, and with the Fifth Mahler stopped trying to explain himself quite so fully.

The symphony begins with death and ends with life, and for a full century (the premiere was in 1904) conductors have scrutinized what that means. Gergiev measured the work from the opening funeral march, and although he rarely lightened up, he leavened tragedy with a wondrous mystical radiance. Bychkov’s approach was more that of a life lived backward, cinematically and Benjamin Button-like.

Thursday’s performance had the great advantage of beauty playing from the orchestra. James Wilt’s solo opening trumpet funeral fanfare set a golden tone for the evening, which was more about the glow of life than its loss. Bychkov certainly has his manic Russian side, and the first two movements, which constitute the first section of the symphony’s tri-part structure, felt like a headlong rush into bipolar madness, as if Mahler were tearing out his hair one minute, in dreamy reverie the next.

For the central Scherzo, Bychkov followed a suggestion Mahler once made (but rarely followed) of asking the first horn to move up to the front of the orchestra, even though what William Lane played Thursday were not so much solos but background obbligatos. The horn here became an eloquent observer of a frisky, if chaotic, romp through unpredictable life lived for the moment and at its height.

BychkovThroughout the symphony, Bychkov continually elevated the mood. That Mahler apparently meant the Adagio for strings and harp as a love letter has not stopped the conductors from finding more somber sentiment and none more so than Gergiev’s deeply affecting reading last week. Bychkov’s tempo was far quicker and he asked for string textures to be more airy, for a harp that tugged less at heartstrings. And that allowed him to make the Finale a frolic, a hero about to take on the world.

The orchestra, from top to bottom, played fabulously for Bychkov. Of course, any orchestra that sounds that good in Mahler’s Fifth might well have apportioned rehearsal time to prepare a little something new for the program as well. Maybe next time. I can’t imagine that Bychkov won’t be back.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday. $22.50 to $170. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org

Related:

Music review: Valery Gergiev conducts Mahler with the Mariinsky

Photos: Semyon Bychkov conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times



 
Comments () | Archives (2)

"For the central Scherzo, Bychkov followed a suggestion Mahler once made (but rarely followed) of asking the first horn to move up to the front of the orchestra, even though what William Lane played Thursday were not so much solos but background obbligatos. The horn here became an eloquent observer of a frisky, if chaotic, romp through unpredictable life lived for the moment and at its height."

Well put...but I do disagree a bit... Mahler wrote such remarkable, and hard to put into words-I guess it is why we call it music...and you can't just say..."shhh listen LISTEN"....tear-jerking, uncontrolable sobbing, soulful, and yes, "bottomless"...etc etc ETC....William Lane is truly a magnificent gift to Los Angeles, to the world. His playing reflects what Mahler needed, wanted all of us to hear...If it was requested that Bill 'stand up' [Berlin did do that literally]for what Mahler wanted to reign than he must sit up front and be obvious...(the incredible volume, sonorous, expansive, strong, and yet at ease...does not describe...something in the background...but rather someting essential and undeniably rich...and played with such masterful control)considering that the obligatos (because I agree, in a very musical sense, they are beyond simplistic solos) are not intended to be far away but a strong enduring, and perseverant presense of astounding spectrum of expression....Yes, I'm in love with Mahler.
Did anyone mention the loud cheering when William was asked to stand? Truly a moving performance!
The orchestra was spectacular!
And no... Mahler is all I could handle for the night...after your heart beats that fast (from excitement)not quite sure I could stay much longer...I need my meditation.

Musiconcern must be crazy. The horn solo the performance I went was just so so. I remember that the phil did this peace in late 90s in the pavillion with eschenbach (may be someone else), and the horn solo sounded terrible then. With the better accustic of Disney, the solo barely improved. I heard from a brass player in the phil who retired in the 90s that visting conductors would put his playing down behind his back using his last name as the joke, "Mr. Lame".


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