Music review: Juraj Valcuha conducts Tchaikovsky and Brahms in Walt Disney Concert Hall debut
Leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut Thursday, the young Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha looked like a painter in front of a very big canvas. With his eloquent and flowing baton gestures -- broad brushstrokes for the strings, stabs of color in the direction of the woodwinds -- he seemed to be spontaneously creating Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”) before our eyes.
The nearly 45-minute score requires a deft touch, and Valčuha (according to a Philharmonic representative, his name is pronounced “Yura Val-CUE-a”) kept the first movement tautly structured but light on its feet. Climaxes were finely judged. Not all first-timers in this sensitive hall achieve the right orchestral blend and decibel levels without pushing too hard.
Valčuha’s admirable restraint continued in the evocative Adagio (“Land of Gloom, Land of Mists” -- Tchaikovsky himself came up with the romantic titles). The woodwinds sounded especially graceful. Some momentum was lost in the Scherzo, but the brass, having a very good night, gave the Finale a rousing punch.
In the second half, soloist Yefim Bronfman joined the conductor for a towering account of Brahms’ mammoth Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s one of the longest in the repertoire, a work far more difficult to play than it sounds. But Bronfman, who recently bowed out of a Carnegie Hall solo recital reportedly due to exhaustion, must be fully recovered. He displayed a gripping focus and stamina.
Pianist Ruth Laredo once described the concerto’s architecture as “a cathedral with no top to it; it goes on forever.” And with Valčuha and the Philharmonic as sensitive partners, Bronfman miraculously gave the score’s epic grandeur a feeling of intimacy and rhapsodic freedom. He made the taxing, awkward-looking piano part, full of dramatic stretches and leaps, sound natural.
Yet Brahms never showcases the pianist in grand Lisztian style. It’s an odd thing about this concerto: you have to be a virtuoso to play it, but you can’t show off. Bronfman’s cadenzas were short and sweet, and always in proper proportion to the orchestral contribution. Highlights were all about the subtle solo-orchestral relationship. For example, the ongoing dialogue between Bronfman and Brian Drake’s haunting horn solo in the opening Allegro, and cellist Peter Stumpf’s beautiful song-like utterances in the radiant Andante. Throughout, Valčuha and Bronfman seamlessly conveyed Brahms’ golden lyricism and earthy vitality.
The Philharmonic’s glowing string section, so crucial in conveying this composer’s perennially alluring melancholy, luxuriated in his sunny Allegretto finale. They clearly will be ready on May 5 when Gustavo Dudamel leads a month-long “Brahms Unbound” festival.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: "Bronfman Plays Brahms," with Juraj Valčuha, conductor, and Yefim Bronfman, piano. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $56 to $177. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com
Photo: Conductor Juraj Valčuha leads the LA Philharmonic Thursday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times