LA Phil's new season opener features something new, something old

By Truman C. Wang

Yefim Bronfman at Disney Hall in 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Yefim Bronfman at Disney Hall in 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

In the opening week of the new season, L.A. Phil introduced several new players to its ranks in the strings, woodwinds and percussion.  Noteworthy are the principal clarinet and flute poached from the redoubtable but fiscally-troubled Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  Almost right away, one could hear perceptible improvements in the overall sounds of the orchestra and the winds section in particular – sharper attacks, greater refinement and more powerful articulation.  If the L.A. Phil was great before, these new talent additions just kicked things up another notch.

The new confidence of playing was unmistakable in the heart-pounding opening bars of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, with its relentless sforzandos and sizzling crescendos that instilled awe in the listener.  Of course, that probably also had to do with Gustavo Dudamel’s dynamic brand of conducting which, although tempered over the years by maturity and experience, was still capable of packing a wallop when called on.

American minimalist composer John Adams (b. 1947) came out to introduce and demonstrate the finer points of his new work Absolute Jest.  So much of today’s new music is experimental, obtuse and idiosyncratic that diving headlong into it without any preamble would be tantamount to jumping into a pool of rip currents, or taking a full doze of sleep aid.  Leonard Bernstein once lamented that modern music had lost its melody and it is still sadly true a quarter-century later.  On paper, “Absolute Jest” is ostensibly a work of inventions on Beethoven’s tunes from various string quartets, sonatas and symphonies.  These inventions, however clever, were sure to escape all but the most learned ears.  The only good things that came out of this whirling hubbub of sounds were the wonderfully dynamic playing of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and the virtuoso turns given to different sections of the orchestra. 

Pianist Yefim Bronfman, a familiar figure on the Disney Concert Hall stage, gave a deeply-felt account of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, playing all the ‘tunes’ to their full emotional and poetic powers, no jests, no inventions.  Together with sensitive support from maestro Dudamel, they made Beethoven’s most personal of piano concertos into a powerful public statement of hope and optimism.  The audience got the message loud and clear and gave one of the hugest ovations I have ever seen in the hall.