Los Angeles Philharmonic at Barbican Hall – Gustavo Dudamel conducts Zipangu, La mer, and The Firebird

Claude Vivier
La mer – three symphonic sketches
The Firebird

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 March, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Barbican Hall on 17 March 2013. Photograph: Mark AllanThe LA Phil ended its three-concert and masterclass stint at the Barbican Centre with a colourful evening that left no doubt about the orchestra’s world-class status. Opening with Claude Vivier’s Zipangu, thirteen string-players executed with aplomb a piece of little distinction. Canadian Vivier (1948-83) was murdered in his Paris apartment. How he would have developed as a composer can only be guessed at. His 15-minute Zipangu (the name for Japan at the time of Marco Polo) initially suggested something by Arvo Pärt with an oriental accent; from that unpromising starting-point there became even less to engage with, the piece filled with effects that Penderecki had exhausted in the 1960s. Having Gustavo Dudamel conduct Zipangu may have lent some credence to it, but even the obvious excellence of the performance couldn’t disguise that the music is monotonous, rambling and lacking invention beyond toying with sound.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Barbican Hall on 17 March 2013. Photograph: Mark AllanThis was the third London performance of La mer in ten days (reviews below). The opening was softly evocative as dawn took on light and activity, Dudamel securing a pellucid, poised and scrupulously detailed rendition ending powerfully but without coarseness or forced loudness. ‘Play of the Waves’ enjoyed grace and favour, was closely observed and often voluptuous – throughout the performance the LA strings had a lovely sheen with depth of timbre in reserve – but the finale (‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’) hung fire a little, the tempo slightly ‘under’ and the coda’s crashing waves just a little contained. Earlier in this movement Dudamel had included the ad lib fanfares, and rightly so.

Stravinsky’s complete score for The Firebird (1910) is extravagant. It comes up quite often though. Dudamel’s reading of it made for more longueurs than usual in that he fashioned the music as a concerto for orchestra with little to suggest either choreography or narrative. If here determining that the three Firebird Suites (1911, 1919, 1945) are preferable, the LA Phil’s response was spectacular and fabulous; the orchestra glowed, there was much sensitivity and delicacy and the dynamic range was huge (from ultra-quiet pianissimos to a focussed loudness that avoided blistering the ears), and with an attack that was dazzlingly brilliant and consummately executed. Ensemble unanimity, and solos, were outstanding – invidious to highlight anyone but Martin Chalifour (Concertmaster), Andrew Bain (horn) and Joseph Pereira (timpani) really excelled. Given playing like this an encore would have been welcome.

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