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Music review: David Afkham takes over Los Angeles Philharmonic program at Disney Hall

May 1, 2011 |  4:15 pm

Four Los Angeles Philharmonic assistant conductors, known as Dudamel fellows but hardly Dude clones, take turns covering for scheduled conductors as well as lead outreach concerts, children’s programs and the like. Last week David Afkham was on call at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

That meant the slender, elegant German maestro, who was born in 1983 and is also an assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, had been assigned to lead a performance of Stravinsky’s complete “The Soldier’s Tale” with the L.A. Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society on Tuesday night and a youth concert revolving around Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony Saturday morning, plus be available in case anything happened to the scheduled guest conductor, Jaap van Zweden.

Something happened. Illness forced Van Zweden to withdraw and his weekend concerts were turned over to Afkham, who made an exciting L.A. Philharmonic subscription debut with them.

The program, which ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, included Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, a grandly scaled late cello concerto featuring the orchestra’s principal cellist, Peter Stumpf, as soloist. The curiosity was to have been a grimly haunting score by Rudolf Escher, a cousin of the Dutch surrealist artist, M.C. Escher, written during World War II.

The curiosity, instead, became Afkham, himself, who replaced Escher’s “Music for the Spirit in Mourning” with no curiosity at all: Beethoven’s heroic “Coriolan” Overture. Maybe it was too much to ask a young conductor to begin this important debut with a 20-minute downer.

Afkham’s strong suit is rhythm, which served him well in Stravinsky on Tuesday and in Beethoven on Saturday. In fact, Afkham’s Beethoven -- which was lean, clean, sleek, tart, sharply accented and danceable -- seems exactly the kind of Beethoven that would have met with Stravinsky’s approval and that Balanchine would have found inherently suited to his choreography.

The Beethoven scores, which Afkham conducted from memory,  were proper bookends. They were written in 1807 and share the key of C minor and a heroic character. Afkham used a full-sized modern orchestra, but he did not go in for a big symphonic sound. The famous four-note opening motif of the Fifth was not Beethovenian fate knocking at the door this time but rather a gust of wind blowing the door open.

The whole symphony felt as though it were a voyage aloft in that gust. And wind becomes a versatile metaphor for this fresh Fifth, in which familiar Beethoven emotional centers felt illusory. Although his training is with piano and violin, Afkham has a special way with wind instruments, which he emphasized unusually to reveal structural flow.

The triumphant Finale did not feel like the resolution of conflict or the overcoming of obstacles but rather the inevitable outcome of natural processes. Principal timpanist Joseph Pereira was Afkham's ally in propulsion, and both men got huge ovations.

Stumpf Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante was on the quick and nimble side as well. Stumpf, who is in his ninth season with the orchestra and who is also an inspired chamber music player, brought his characteristic taste and sophisticated grace to the solo cello part. And an unfailingly beautiful tone.

This concerto of sorts was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, then a dazzling young cellist. For it, Prokofiev -- in failing health and a broken man in what were his last years and the last years of his nemesis, Joseph Stalin (they died on the same day in 1953) –- returned to his own more productive days. He refashioned an earlier cello concerto as a hybrid symphony/concerto with echoes of ballet. Themes in the character of his “Romeo and Juliet” are given an autumnal and sometimes sardonic, but not joyless, glow.

Neither Stumpf nor Afkham put much stress on the emotional ambiguities of this great and elusive   score. The cello’s technical difficulties were met with cool unflappability and the orchestra took a too supportive role. Afkham seemed happiest in the quick passages in the central movements. Stumpf’s glory came in the big cadenza, also in that movement, when he filled the hall with a rapt intensity.

But the big news is that David Afkham is on his way up.


Dudamels in the making? L.A. Phil names conducting fellows

-- Mark Swed

Photos: Above, David Afkham conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Lower, cellist Peter Stumpf. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (5)

Attended the Sunday performance; my perception of the Beethoven 5th was a "Cliff's Notes" versionof the Symphony with very little attention or concern to detailed phrasing and an obsession to Beethoven's metronome markings.

Brisk tempos in Beethoven's Symphonies are no longer revelational ever since the 1990s movement to have Beethoven performed with a greater adherence and authenticity to the score by the numerous Period performances.

I personally found Afkam's performance quite pedestrian, with the only redeeming qualities some of nuanced passages by the LAPO's woodwind and perscussion sections bringing any semblance of individuality or character to the Symphony.

Not to criticize the L.A. Philharmonic's tonal qualities; in racing terms they just didn't have the right driver for the orchestral vehicle. A result of this week's contingencies with Jaap Van Zweden's illness.

The percussionist earned the well deserved audience applause when acknowledge by maestro Afkam for his individual contributions. The rest of the time I sat in bewilderment for the enthusiastic response by the audience for what was an ordinary and quick performance of a 5th Symphony which truly lacked some of the individuality of the Carlos Kleiber and Carlo Maria Guilini stellar recorded accounts (great examples of a driving tempo and relaxed pace performances). The Coriolan Overture suffered from the same performance afflections.

Mr. Afkam's interpretation reflects that of a young inexperienced conductor, who still has quite a great deal to learn about the musical experience of Beethoven outside of the printed score.

The Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante performance, albeit quick paced was redeemed by Mr. Stumpf's committed performance and virtuosity. Agree with Mr. Swed that Stumpf brought intensity to the work but that it lacked some of the emotional qualities in more noted performances (Rostropovich, Ma and Heinrich Schiff recorded accounts come to mind).

Still it was a welcome performance of a work that generally is not programmed too frequently.

Wonderful weather on the patio at Disney Hall this Sunday afternoon and I truly appreciated the Customer-focused e-Mail received from the L.A. Philharmonic regarded the Immigration Rights Demonstration today, which I proactively planned for and allowed me to avoid the negative commute experience encountered during the Znaider/Sinaisky/LAPO Saturday 4/16 matinee concert that I last attended.

I wish maestro Van Zweden could have conducted the Sunday concert; I'm sure I would have had a more positive concert experience with his more extensive conducting experiences.

I have to differ with the unnamed President of Fullerton.

I felt the Beethoven's 5th on Sunday's program was fleet and vital. While I was listening to Afkam's interpretation I felt that this is the first time I've heard the 5th live where all of the tempos just seemed right. Afkam's conducting and his attention to both detail and forward momentum inspired goosebumps. It was the most exciting 5th I've heard in LA Phil perform since Giulini conducted the piece in the 80's.

What "central movements" in Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante is the reviewer talking about? The piece is in three movements and therefore has only one "central movement" - second.

I most definitely agree with Jim McDaniels: the performance of Beethoven inspired goosebumps and I felt overwhelmed with emotion. David Afkham should have been the scheduled conductor all along in my humble opinion.

dear Fullerton friend of music....it's rarely fair to compare a live performace of a concerto, especially a cello concerto, with a recorded one!!...the cello just isn't as loud as it is on the recording!!


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