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Music review: The Los Angeles Philharmonic's 'Aspects of Adès' gets off to a start with Stravinsky

April 2, 2011 |  1:46 pm

AdesAnyone foolish enough to try to untangle composer, pianist, conductor, festival organizer and unpredictable enthusiast Thomas Adès’ aspects would probably wind up with a mess. Like dissecting a living thing, you kill the organism to figure out its parts. It’s the connections that bring life.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Aspects of Adès” festival began for real Friday night (following a prelude by the Emerson String Quartet earlier in the month) at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a Stravinsky/Adès program. The most celebrated British composer of his generation (he turned 40 last month), Adès has certainly paid homage to the spiky rhythmic, melodic and harmonic quality of Stravinsky’s Modernism. But then Adès also has a Tchaikovskian romantic streak at home with Stravinsky’s Russian romantic roots, to say nothing of a neo-Classical streak that connects with Stravinsky’s neo-Classical period.

The Stravinsky pieces were the neo-Classical Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, sensationally played by Katia and Marielle Labèque, and the folk-inspired “Les Noces,” controversially performed by the Russian folk ensemble, Pokrovsky, four estimable pianists and New York’s hip So Percussion.

After intermission came Adès' “In Seven Days,” which is subtitled “Piano Concerto with Moving Image,” and which Adès has described as a video ballet. It’s Stravinskian, in a way. It’s also Ligetian, Tippetian, Nymanian, Nancarrowian, Rachmaninoffian, Knussenian, Janacekian. A dozen more silly-sounding adjectives from composer names not normally given such treatment might be added to this dazzlingly inventive score. And that’s even before we start dealing with the aspects of Tal Rosner’s video on the music, the music on the video and the way the visual effects influence -– and/or obstruct -– listening.

The Stravinsky pairing was striking. In 1915, two years after “Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky began thinking about another modernist Russian folk ballet, “Svadebka,” which would be a depiction of an elaborate Russian folk wedding, employing Russian folk tunes and even folk instruments. By 1923, the final version of the work had a French title “Les Noces” (The Wedding) and was for four solo singers, four pianos, chorus and percussion.

By this time Stravinsky was moving into abstract classicism and attempted to cover his folk-tracks as best he could. His Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, a dozen years later, is purely formal music suffused with Beethoven and Brahms. Stravinsky was by then a famous composer strapped for cash. He wanted something he and his son, Soulima, could play on tour.

A 1938 recording by Igor and Soulima Stravinsky of the Concerto, clumsily played, makes this sound like contrived music meant to rock no boats. The Labèques turned up the juice Friday and rocked ‘n’ rolled. This was stylish, sparkling playing, full of rhythmic life and intricate interplay.

The Labèques then joined the piano quartet of Nicholas Hodges (the soloist for “In Seven Days”) and Gregory DeTurck in “Les Noces.” Adès conducted. But the 14-member Pokrovsky Ensemble took over.

For the last two decades the Pokrovskys have been spilling the folk goods on Stravinsky. Their Nonesuch recording  of "Les Noces" from 1994 was a revelation, showing not only just how strong the folk inflection is in the music, but where many of the melodies came from. Its founder, Dimitri Pokrovsky, died in 1996.

There are two only two members from the group that recorded “Les Noces.” And now the ensemble, which did a funky re-creation of a Russian wedding ceremony in the pre-concert, has taken on shtick. Singing from memory in “Les Noces,” the Prokovskys pranced about in front of Adès. The current ensemble is uneven, most in it better suited for folk music than Stravinsky. But the pianos and percussion were sharp as tacks.

Adès no doubt has his own complicated attitudes toward weddings. “In Seven Days” is wed to video, as the composer was, briefly, to Rosner, the video artist with whom he collaborated on the work. The score was an L.A. Philharmonic co-commission, first performed here at an all-Adès Green Umbrella Concert in 2008, also with the composer conducting and Hodges as soloist.

Music and video were made together, each artist inspiring the other as they progressed. The mostly abstract video imagery, while too often mimicking the music, provides important clues to the musical narrative from "Genesis,"which moves from chaos to the making of oceans, sea, sky, stars, sun, moon, grass, trees, flowers, dinosaurs, butterflies and, finally, us.

Every measure of the score is a surprise. Sometimes the rhythms get incredibly complex. Sometimes the strings are sweetly Baroque and the brass can become majestically hymnal in their chorales. The piano is all over the place, and Hodges was brilliant.

Adès and his aspects continue at Disney Saturday night and with more programs through April 10.

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Thomas Adès in all his aspects

Music review: The Emerson Quartet and James Galway open 'Aspects of  Adès'

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic "Aspects of Adès," Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Various dates and prices through April 10. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Adès in Hollywood in January. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times.

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