Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, conductor Edo de Waart led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a three-part program that began with subtle Chinese philosophy and ended in Germanic self-aggrandizement.
De Waart opened the program with the orchestra’s first performance of Qigang Chen’s “The Five Elements,” a delicate and appealing 10-minute tone poem inspired by traditional Chinese beliefs about the building blocks of the universe.
The work unfolded in two-minute sections titled “Water,” “Wood,” “Fire,” “Earth” and “Metal.” Each part had a distinct orchestration and tempo, beginning with the slow, Debussy-like fluidity of “Water” and ending with the quick, perky dance rhythms in “Metal.”
The surprise came in the central section, “Fire,” with its sustained, closely overlapping brass textures instead of expected crackling, sparkling colors. These did occur but only secondarily. Why the difference? Fire, according to the program notes, traditionally represents life, which is “warm, but not aggressive.”
For life that is warm and aggressive, de Waart closed with a grand account of Strauss’ noble, noisy, saber-rattling, self-glorifying, eventually transcendent “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life). The Philharmonic played with sumptuous sound. The winds carped nastily as the hero’s critics, the brass and strings soared in his heroics, and the percussive Battlefield became the usual take-no-prisoners juggernaut. But can anyone in these post-“Apocalypse Now” days feel comfortable during such music?
Still, principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour traced the vagaries of Strauss’ wife, Pauline, with vivid detail, commitment and amusement, while his final, sensitive duet with principal horn William Lane led the way to the composer’s expansive, redemptive close.
In between these works, de Waart conducted Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Joyce Yang, Silver Medalist of the 12th Van Cliburn International Competition, as the soloist.
Here, conductor and soloist occupied different worlds. De Waart captured the excitement of the classically bound Beethoven just stepping over the line into a new era of expressivity, revealing in passage after passage, nuance, passion and drama.
Yang sounded more distanced from the music, as if establishing a rapport with its struggle rather than engaging in it. Showing little interest in dynamic or interpretive variation, she played with a polished, pearly evenness that was remarkable for its ease up and down the keyboard. Her most introspective moments came in the cadenzas and at the start of the slow middle movement.
Still, closer modeling on de Waart’s approach would have better suited Beethoven.
— Chris Pasles
Above: de Waart during a 2008 appearance at Disney Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times