Mendelssohn's early romantic gem and Countess Polignac

By Truman C. Wang

The word is out.  Ya got trouble, in River City,.. and in the LA Phil winds.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a high turnover rate in the winds section.  One cannot help but surmise whether the lung power crisis is due to downtown L.A.’s smog or just plain bad luck.  In my fifteen years of attending the Phil, I have seen a slew of flutists and clarinetists come and go, almost expecting a new face to pop up with each new season.  Obviously this did not bode well for the overall ensemble cohesiveness year after year.  But amazingly, somehow the winds have always managed to sound ‘blended-in’ and quite all right, if not always the star of the concert.  Therefore, it was with bated breath, so to speak, that I looked forward to Mendelssohn’s Overture for Wind Instruments (Harmoniemusik) Op.24.  Happily, we have a new flutist and his name is Denis Bouriakov, who turned in a very smooth and idiomatic account  of his parts in the Harmoniemusik as well as in the later Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1.  His little joyful musical tête-à-tête in the symphony’s final movement with clarinetist Michelle Zukovsky was a memorable highlight of the evening.  Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducted all the works from memory, at times whipping up the orchestra to a Beethovenian frenzy; at other times standing motionless just enjoying the beguiling harmonies of Mendelssohn’s youthful work.  This highly underrated mini-masterpiece of a symphony by a fifteen-year-old Mendelssohn ranks favorably alongside the early symphonies (Nos 1 & 2) of Beethoven in its dramatic forcefulness and imaginative use of woodwinds. 

The star violin soloist Gil Shaham (b.1971) proved a real team player in the two J.S. Bach Violin Concertos, BWV 1041, 1042, playing both the solos and the tutti.  The slender and firm tone of his 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius was unmistakable and stood apart and above from the pack of orchestral strings during ensemble playing.  Even though Mr. Shaham played both Bach concertos back to back for a generous thirty-five minutes, one would have wished for an encore for the famous Strad to shine alone.  Unlike Yuja Wang’s rip-roaring encore last week, no such luck this time, and no standing ovation – which is proof positive that standing ovations are purely based on the whims of the audience and not on merit.

I am told, however, that there will be a ‘mystery encore’ at the Sunday concert.  I might go again just to hear the gem that is Mendelssohn’s early romantic symphony.