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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel partners Brahms' Requiem with Steven Mackey's 'Beautiful Passing'

May 13, 2011 |  2:30 pm

Dudamel josefowicz
Brahms’ “A German Requiem” and Steven Mackey’s “Beautiful Passing” –- the works Gustavo Dudamel chose Thursday night for the second of his “Brahms Unbound” programs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall -- are both passingly beautiful. One includes Brahms’ response to his mother’s death. The other is Mackey’s to that of his mother.

In an effort to cheat tragedy, both composers searched long, hard and deep for comfort. And both wrote scores (Brahms’ was completed in 1868; Mackey’s, 140 years later) that did much to bolster their reputation for gravitas. Dutiful and dramatic, Dudamel brought a serious intensity to each composer.

But if the desire to approach dying as beatific was the common ground between composers who were not born far apart (Brahms in Hamburg, Germany; Mackey in Frankfurt), the similarities stop suddenly. Mackey’s time, place and sensibility is our own.

He grew up in Northern California in the 1960s. His instrument is electric guitar. He plays pop and improvises. He is also a composition professor at Princeton University. “Beautiful Passing,” a violin concerto, is the piece in which he puts it all convincingly together. Thursday was its West Coast premiere.

The title comes from his mother’s last request to her son: “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.” He was, at the time, writing what he had expected would be a racy, dancey concerto suitable for his soloist, Leila Josefowicz. His mood understandably changed.

Mackey’s concerto has the quality of blowing up the small things in life while grappling with the grave ones of existence and consciousness. The concerto starts with the violin holding a serene A for several measures, while the percussion aggressively and vainly attempts to interrupt.

The orchestra bops out, again and again, a jingle that is the tinkling tune of New Jersey Transit ticket machines. Virtuosity at first is not the concern of the soloist but the harp and percussion.

Josefowicz, who has become a mostly annual visitor to the L.A. Philharmonic, grows ever more startlingly intense. The higher purpose (and higher pitches) of her slow moving melody –- Romantic and verging on but avoiding the cornball -– remains oblivious to clamor. She seduces the orchestra, which meets her halfway but won’t give up its ticket to ride.

A stunning cadenza in the middle is the turning point. This is fresh, rapturous violin writing, full of swirling harmonics, as if played by an electric guitar transformed by a choir of particularly musical angels into something heavenly. After that, violin and orchestra dance together, happily and with what sounds like a brief stop in Indonesia. The ending is again serene but now unquestioning.

Josefowicz’s performance was spellbinding. So much so, in fact, that I left the Disney Hall still caught up in its glow, despite an exceeding long performance of the “German Requiem,” a piece George Bernard Shaw famously decried for its “intolerable tedium.” As a Shavian, I fear I am a poor guide to Brahms’ largest score, its seven large, lingering self-help sections putting a smiley face on mourning.

It is written for large orchestra, large chorus and two solo singers who have very little to sing. The texts come from Old Testament, New Testament and Apocrypha, all chosen with the intent to indiscriminately spread blessing to living and dead, and to frustrate grief.

There are many passages replete in pleasing Brahmsian melody and superb counterpoint. The choral writing is grand. The orchestral colors are well-hued in their muted luster (Brahms used a surprising three harps, an instrument that never made it into his symphonies). The admirers of the “German Requiem” are many, and among its interpreters are included a number of history’s great conductors (even Pierre Boulez).

The program book, perhaps playing it safe given Dudamel’s current predilection for slow tempos, estimated the length of the work at 70 minutes. He required 77. But Dudamel did not dawdle. He actively brought out an inner pulse and lavished attention on details. He put the weight on robust low instruments whenever he could, and that slows you down.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale were excellent. The soprano Christine Schäfer and baritone Matthias Goerne were wonderful soloists. From appearances, many in Disney were deeply moved Thursday night. Many others were restless. Death does not always unite us.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic "Brahms Unbound" with Gustavo Dudamel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. $23.75 to $177. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

Photo: Conductor Gustavo Dudamel and violinist Leila Josefowicz perform Steven Mackey's "Beautiful Passing" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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