Music review: LA Phil premieres Richard Dubugnon's 'Battlefield'
Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented the world premiere of Richard Dubugnon’s splashy “Battlefield” Concerto for two pianos and double orchestra, written for Katia and Marielle Labèque. After intermission Semyon Bychkov conducted Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. This is a pairing with potential resonance for Americans.
In 1950, a young Morton Feldman and John Cage were in the audience for a New York Philharmonic concert to hear a legendary but rare Modernist work -- Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21. Not wanting to spoil the experience by staying for the more traditional Symphonic Dances, which bizarrely followed, both composers, independently, fled, and it was in the lobby on the way out that they met. That chance meeting was the spark of the New York School.
But there was probably little reason for anyone to flee from Rachmaninoff this time around. Dubugnon’s entertainingly theatrical concerto, which the L.A. Philharmonic commissioned for the Labèques, is by a Swiss composer with a French flair who does not seek to move music forward. In fact, it was the Symphonic Dances, given a revelatory performance by Bychkov, that proved to be the evening’s astonishing music.
Ironically, in 1950, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was still recent music, having been premiered a decade earlier in Philadelphia. Webern’s Symphony was from 1928, but its 12-tone approach helped break new ground that proved an indispensable inspiration to American and European Modernists in the 1950s.
One of those Modernists was Pierre Boulez in Paris in 1950. Dubugnon, who was born in 1968 and has quite a following in Paris these days, represents a 21st century neoconservative anti-Boulez reaction to Modernism.
More irony: In the mid-1970s, when the Labèque sisters were in their early 20s, one way they first astounded the musical world was with their performances of Boulez’s almost impossible to play music for two pianos.
All of this leaves us with “Battlefield” seeming somewhat trivial. Dubugnon’s inspiration was Paolo Uccello’s 15th century Florentine painting, “Battaglia di San Romano.” His program notes for his concerto are a blow-by-blow description of mêlée, and it's perfectly easy to follow by ear on first hearing. The orchestra is divided into two, with a small no-man’s land in between.
A trumpet player on each terrace sends out the call. What follows are parades, fighting and truce, and more fighting, marches of funeral and triumph, and finally peace and reconciliations. Each pianist loses a hand, but gets it back in time for a garish finish. The timing, and to some extent the tone, is that of a 27-minute television episode.
“Battlefield” easily holds a listener’s interest thanks to flashy orchestral writing and the even flashier piano writing that exploits not only that exceptional technique the Labèques had for Boulez but also their considerable jazzier sides. The rock and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin is a former boyfriend of Katia’s, and her orchestra was enhanced with a prominent electric bass (Dubugnon is an excellent bassist, himself).
The pianists mix it up with every kind of, well, Rachmaninoffian riff under the sun. Meanwhile Dubugnon mixes styles easily. There’s some Messiaen. Some Ravel. The theatricality reminded me of Americans -- John Corigliano, in particular. The incessant fooling around with a couple of catchy jingle-like phrases is, however, like advertising.
The orchestra (or orchestras) played with great spirit. Bychkov led a dazzlingly competent performance. The Labèques -- who introduced the evening with Ravel’s two-piano version of his “Rapsodie Espagnole,” sensually evoked and also theatrically lighted -- held nothing back.
But what an advanced wonder Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances seemed afterward. The composer's last major work, the score is no toy soldier battle but confronts tangible life and death issues. The haunting saxophone solo in the first dance made it sound as much of its time as Dubugnon’s electric bass does of ours. Rachmaninoff’s dusting off the Dies Irae motto in the last movement is an insistent dance of death in contrast to Dubugnon’s insistence on silly mottos.
And what a truly dazzling performance the Dances got. Bychkov, who left Russia in the 1970s and who is married to Marielle Labèque, is hardly unknown. But he has never had a major orchestra. Last year he finished 13 years with a radio orchestra in Cologne, Germany, and now guest conducts.
It was Bychkov’s performance that did the real Rachmaninoff convincing. Every phrase was like a living breath taken. Details were miraculous but not artificially accentuated. The robust orchestral sound was stirring.
Last season Bychkov toured the West Coast with the Vienna Philharmonic. The L.A. sound is not as luscious as the Viennese (nothing is), but I thought the orchestral chemistry superior Friday. This is a relationship well worth fostering.
-- Mark Swed
Photos: Katie, left, and Marielle Labeque perform at Disney Hall. Katie Labeque with composer Richard Dubugnon. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times