So what did we get in quick succession at the mighty LA Philharmonic? Both Esa-Pekka Salonen, its penultimate maestro, and, of course, Gustavo Dudamel, its present podium chief — two who are linked to the orchestra's acclaim far and wide.
Huzzahs are in order. Each one just celebrated a specialty vein of music.
For Salonen (right) it was Debussy's "Pelléas and Mélisande," utterly remarkable in its shift from 1995, when he led a Peter Sellars production at the Chandler Pavilion for what was then called Music Center Opera — remember it? — to this current venture at Disney Hall, unrelated to LA Opera.
That first Salonen encounter of the work, with its conversion from allusive poetry to sensational reality, was an attention-grabber — Sellars' staging personified the O.J. Simpson murder scenario with looming menace. But the visual theatrics overwhelmed the delicately charged music.
No such problem this time. For starters there was the svelte, glittering, eminently pliable Philharmonic, occupying its full-center Disney stage, not a submerged pit. For another, the cast members pretty much stood in mapped-out spots, employing some abstract gestural accents. All emphasis was on the music. And what music it was.
We didn't have to decipher this connoisseur's opera as either a pale, ephemeral nocturne or a violent household drama — which is an argument usually had over the Maeterlinck play on which it's based.
All the surreal mystery and darkly compelling undercurrents rose up to engulf us, in Salonen's and the orchestra's hands. Neither was there a scintilla of doubt about the passions driving this medieval tale of Cain-and-Abel brothers seeking to possess the same woman.
The powerful outpourings from Stéphane Degout as Pelléas make your heart race. The grim determination from Laurent Naouri as his brother Golaud could fill you with dread and the sad intonings from Willard White, as the grandfatherly Arkel — we remember this bass-baritone as a murderous O.J. Simpson-Golaud back in '95 — along with the lyrical innocence of Camilla Tilling as Mélisande complete the sound picture of symbolist sensuality veering into volcanic eruptions.
All of it bespeaks 20th century European music.
But then there is Dudamel, soon taking his band off to Paris, Luxembourg, Amsterdam and London with an American care package in their arms, a genre of music that incorporates both the U.S. and South America. Now you've got to call this tour repertory a rarity. Standard offerings on home-away visits would be the standard export literature.
Call it a shot in the musical arm.
Dudamel's clever program will give Europeans some of what they already know, music by Hollywood's John Williams. Lucky man, Williams. His "Soundings" is an actual Philharmonic commission — a prize not bestowed by the orchestra on his several important predecessors, say, Bernard Herrmann and Erich Korngold, who also wrote movie scores (but you can imagine that no young composer ever dreamed of one day becoming known as a movie composer).
How clear it is, though, that Williams' opening piece — a series of unrelated, episodic tweets — pales beside the heftier, more substantial fare that followed it. And how apt it was to choose Ginastera in that line-up, celebrating the centennial year of his birth.
The Argentine composer's 1st Piano Concerto is a stunning work — as played by the whiz-bang virtuoso, Sergio Tiempo. And although it's written in the 12-tone technique its parts link together organically to conjure an eerie, spectral aura with alternating currents of driven aggression. No wonder that at its conclusion he and Dudamel, the two young, dynamic amigos, strutted offstage together arms around each other.
Just as compelling is Andrew Norman's "Play: Level 1" and he means it. Here was artful, dizzying humor in a piece with cleverly bumptious lines that splintered apart. Call it musical geometry.
And now let me say that on this last of four performances the Philharmonic's playing boasted a clarity and finesse that was startling. Not only did it show off these two works marvelously but leaving it world-wide as a calling card for contemporary music is a very smart tack.
Still, just in case audiences across the pond (and in New York) might need to hear the ring of familiarity, Dudamel & Co. closed the concert with Copland's "Appalachian Spring" Suite — which cannot be more dear to the heart.
Should anyone be looking for an innocence unknown today, you know, that prairie purity and joyful optimism spoken in gentle Coplandese, this is where to find it. What's more, there were lone, lovely lyric pipings — courtesy of principal flutist Denis Bouriakov — that rose above the soft, plush strings and struck a chord of deep humanity. Did we awake in heaven?
For more whimsical searches downtowners could look to LA Opera's revival of Barrie Kosky's wildly imaginative "Magic Flute," a concoction straight out of 1920's silent film with old-timey screen titles replacing dialogue and animated black-and-white cartoon characters popping up. There's one caveat: you couldn't find the pathos Mozart intended in the Singspiel's most tender arias — even if creative entertainment was at an all-time high visually.
No visuals were needed, though, when Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra touched down at UCLA's Royce Hall, this time with guest conductor Matthias Pintscher who programmed Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite. It, like "Appalachian Spring," is ballet music, brilliant as characterization. And so it was here, as played by this ever-treasurable ensemble.
Like a few other visiting maestros who want to make their mark, Pintscher over-conducted in a muscular way — yes, all of the music's bold, structural outlines were there. And he did manage to coax affecting moments of Ravelian poetry from the orchestra. He even gave us some thoughtful preview words on Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2, although not a lot of expressive nuance or dynamic range emerged either in his account of the work or in the Beethoven Eighth.
So goes the parade of auditioners for next LACO music director.