Music review: Gustavo Dudamel premieres Sofia Gubaidulina's 'Glorious Percussion'
Percussion is information. James Gleick begins his magisterial new survey, “The Information,” with a history of the talking drums of sub-Saharan Africa.
“Percussion is revolution,” John Cage wrote in 1938, the opening salvo for what became a percussion renaissance in Western classical music.
Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, percussion became revelation when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the U.S. premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Glorious Percussion.” The 37-minute concerto for five percussion soloists and orchestra was the latest episode in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Brahms Unbound” festival.
Glorious? You bet. Unbound? In the evening's Brahms symphony, the lyrical Second, lonely timpani provide the only percussion, whereas Gubaidulina's companion concerto features a mass of wood, metal, glass and skin. There were, in front of the orchestra, rattles and gongs (slight and super-sized) and tom toms and chimes and cymbals and xylophones and marimbas and woodblocks and big bass drums, to say nothing of the strange instruments with odd names -- agogo, cabaza, darabuka -- from distant cultures.
A percussionist herself, as well as a master of instrumental color, the 79-year-old Russian/Tartar composer with a strong spiritual bent seems to have intended this concerto as a kind of communion between percussion and the rest of the orchestra, which is light on woodwinds and heavy on brass. And so percussion-drunk is the work, Gubaidulina even includes a full percussion section in the orchestra, as well as two harps and celesta.
The score begins as a showcase and a history of percussion. Percussion instruments have dialogues with orchestral ones. A talking drum talks to a bass, thunk and pizzicato, thunk and pizzicato. High strings shimmer, their overtones kissing those coming from ringing gongs. Brass and bells got along very well in the Baroque era and still do in Gubaidulina’s numinous soundscape.
Gubaidulina references jazz and ritual. Short sections of improvisation by the riveting soloists -– Anders Loguin, Anders Haag, Mika Takehara, Eirik Raude and Robyn Schulkowsky -– allow for an element of play, even the tossing of a shaker in the air.
But the real glories of “Glorious Percussion” are Gubaidulina’s rapt resonances. At one point, all five soloists produce mallet madness, with the full orchestra tapping along. Different sounds seemed to come from deep in the earth or from the heavens. Sometimes I found it hard to distinguish between the percussion and orchestral instruments as timbres blended into acoustical union. "Glorious Percussion" ends in a bass drum bacchanalia.
Brahms' “Tragic” Overture had been planned to precede Gubaidulina's concerto, but the overture was removed from the program because of the complications of setting up the percussion instruments. It was just as well. "Glorious Percussion" lives in its own universe.
Dudamel’s reading of Brahms’ Second Symphony was unlike his take on Brahms’ over-achieving First two weeks ago. Brahms had lightened up a little and so did Dudamel.
The emphasis was flow and freshness, not weight and tradition. Brahms has a way in the symphony of undercutting graceful melody with throbbing syncopation, and Dudamel balanced this with supple and subtle tact. The lullaby-like second theme of the first movement might have special significance to a new father. But it was more the sense of a new life that Dudamel was after.
He did not seem to ask for a well-polished sound. This is a symphony that the L.A. Philharmonic could probably play elegantly without rehearsal. But there was sometimes a grit to the strings, a rasp to the brass, as if the players were after something novel. Brahms can get thick, but here instrumental sections stood out with distinctive tints. Perhaps Gubaidulina's sonic ecosphere held.
Dudamel did allow for Brahmsian bulk in the slow movement, and then he was up and dancing again for the Scherzo. The Finale was a brassy and exuberant Brahms, not just unbound but unbounded.
Back home, I put on Carlo Maria Giulini's affectionate L.A. Philharmonic recording of the Brahms Second, which I have always loved. Suddenly, it sounded a little stuffy.
-- Mark Swed
Los Angeles Philharmonic "Brahms Unbound" with Gustavo Dudamel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Friday (Casual Fridays without "Glorious Percussion") and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. $23.75 to $177. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.
Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Sofia Gubaidulina's "Glorious Percussion" Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times