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Powerful Passing Music

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
05/12/2011 -  & May 13, 14*, 15, 2011
Steven Mackey: Beautiful Passing
Johannes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45

Leila Josefowicz (Violin), Christine Schäfer (Soprano), Matthias Goerne (Baritone),
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

G. Dudamel (© Mathew Imaging)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic continued its “Brahms Unbound” series this weekend with the composer’s masterpiece, Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). “Brahms Unbound” is a month-long exploration of the German master’s work and Saturday night’s concert featured an expansive reading of Brahms’ beautiful work paired with the West Coast premiere of Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing. The performances made for an emotionally gripping and touching evening of music.

Mackey’s 20 minute piece for solo violin and orchestra (don’t call it a concerto) is based on the composer’s experience with his mother’s passing. In his own words, “the governing metaphor of the work has to do with the violin gaining control of its own destiny, competing with, commanding, and ultimately letting go of the orchestra.” Mackey’s concept begins with an abrupt and rude entrance of the entire orchestra mere seconds after the solo violin sounds its first notes. While the proficient and heroic Leila Josefowicz played seemingly never-ending ascending lines, the orchestra would bark in with clanging sounds and rhythms reminiscent of a busy Manhattan thoroughfare. Fittingly, the nagging melodic theme from the first half is based on a New Jersey Transit ticket machine’s computerized sounds. The timpanist’s use of tennis balls as mallets elicited a few snickers from the audience.

The turning point of the piece is halfway through, after a few instruments from the orchestra find some unison notes with the soloist and gradually lose their outspoken furor. The soloist plays an extensive cadenza which is reminiscent of an electric guitar riff, feedback and all. As the orchestra and soloist find common ground, Mackey uses open harmonies and undulating, placid sounds as a startling contrast to the material from the first half. The piece ends with the soloist drifting away from the orchestra by playing a hybrid of her material from both halves as all sounds fade to silence. There was something completely authentic and convincing in the performance that was owed in no small part to Josefowicz’s confident and passionate effort. The transformation wasn’t just in the different styles of music, but also in her body language and theatricality. It was an immersive performance that served Mackey’s effective piece extremely well. Dudamel was a masterful traffic cop in the complex first half and a sensitive collaborator in the second.

The latter half of the program featured a performance of Brahms’ Requiem that lasted close to 80 minutes. This was a performance of sheer magnificence and grandeur. The slow tempos were on the slow side and the fast tempos were on the fast side. It was a breakneck performance, but one the LA Philharmonic and Master Chorale deftly handled. The expansive and breathtaking sounds of the Master Chorale were thrilling at their most powerful and stunning at their most quiet. Surely “Aber des Herrn Wort...” was among the most convincing ever sung and a perfect example of what a stunning venue Walt Disney Concert Hall is for classical music. The sheer volume of sound was an inspiring joy. The Chorale’s diction was exceptional, making the projected supertitles unnecessary for those with a decent knowledge of the text; their sound was always full and confident, yet sensitive and moving with no waiver of stamina.

The Philharmonic proved very capable and virtuosic throughout the multiple transitions and displayed a lush, romantic sound. The onstage organ console was an authoritative and formidable addition. A nagging issue was the lack of dynamic contrast. There were never moments of hushed, intense playing as the volume level never seemed to dip down to the level that the chorus skillfully set. The most egregious offenders were the final notes of the first and last movement when the woodwinds glide in on top of the layer of sound created by the chorus. It was just too loud and even jarring – an odd oversight. Maestro Dudamel’s intimate knowledge and mastery of a piece never ceases to amaze me as he, once again, conducted without a score and was clear and passionate about the sound he wanted. Soprano Christine Schäfer and Baritone Matthias Goerne brought impressive star power to the solo parts and while Schäfer’s tone has lost some of its core, it was a moving performance. Goerne sang with the fervor of an evangelist (he also moved about as such), providing a dark baritone sound. “Brahms Unbound” continues with the composer’s Symphony No. 2 opening Thursday, May 19th.

Matthew Martinez



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