LA Phil and Dudamel introduce captivating online concert series

Gustavo Dudamel conduts LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl for SOUND/STAGE inaugural concert.
© LA Phil

While concert venues throughout the US remain closed, for the time being, performing arts organizations have not been idle. Instead, various initiatives involving streamed concerts are in progress.  

On Friday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic augured its branch of COVID-19 era concerts, available internationally on the orchestra’s SOUND/STAGE website. At this stage, the series will include nine weekly episodes, each centered around a specific theme. 

Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl soundstage, with safety measures, these compact, circa thirty-minute episodes feature, as always with the LA Phil, an intriguingly varied repertoire, conducted by Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel

Contemporary music, in its many guises, will form an essential part of SOUND/STAGE,  including the US premiere of Thomas Adès’s luminous chaconne Dawn (2020), first heard at the BBC Proms in August, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

In addition, Jessie Montogomery’s re-imagination of the National Anthem, Banner (2014) will appear in the series, alongside Gabriela Ortiz’s Corpórea (2014) Andra Day’s Rise Up (2015) and Arturo Márquez’s Danzon No. 1 (1994). 

Some iconic American classics will be heard as well, namely Duke Ellington’s Solitude (1934), George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist, and the second movement from William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930). 

One of the episodes will focus solely on Ludwig van Beethoven, with a complete performance of Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811-12). 

Alongside the performances by Dudamel and the LA Phil, episodes include interviews and features, with playlists curated by the artists. 

The first episode, Love in the Time of COVID, features three very special pieces of love and dedication. The programme opens with the final song, Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueras from Peter Lieberson’s achingly beautiful cycle Neruda Songs (2005) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. 

Both Neruda Songs and its follow-up cycle Songs of Love and Sorrow (2010) demonstrate Lieberson’s highly unique late style, combining sublime instrumental mastery and astounding vocal lyricism into a deeply moving and profoundly enchanting musical language. 

Co-commissioned by the LA Phil and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Neruda Songs were written for the composer’s wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who premiered the cycle in Los Angeles, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. In 2008, Lieberson won the Grawemeyer Award for Neruda Songs

Lieberson discovered Pablo Neruda’s poetry by chance, from a collection randomly picked up on an airport bookstore. Many years passed until five of the poems found their musical setting, a fusion of passionate expression and minutiae orchestral detail, worthy of Ravel in sheer craft of construction. 

Clad in an enchanting array of harmonies, Lieberson’s vocal lines grow to soaring heights, as the text muses on the eternal nature of love. Echoed by a solo horn and woodwinds, with dark-hued string textures unraveled underneath, Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueras is a masterful meditation.

Performed with virtuoso beauty by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, the solo line glows with sublime heat, to a dazzling effect. As her extraordinary fellow travelers, Dudamel and the LA Phil musicians give a compelling account of Lieberson’s wondrous orchestration. 

Hopefully we’ll get to hear the complete cycle by this dream team in a not-too-distant future. 

LA Phil and Dudamel in rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl soundstage. © LA Phil

George Walker’s Lyric for Strings was written in 1946, following the death of the composer’s grandmother. The five-minute lament was first heard in a radio concert with the student orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music, conducted by Seymour Lipkin

Among Walker’s extensive output there are five symphonies, five piano sonatas, two string quartets, and several works for voice and orchestra, including Lilacs (1996), premiered by soprano Faye Robinson the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa and lauded with the Pulitzer Prize.

In relation to the Walker oeuvre, Lyric for Strings is somewhat simple, yet highly communicate work of a young composer in this early twenties, composed in a direct and  appealing manner. 

Following the opening cord, the elegiac main theme appears, traveling from one instrument group to another in an imitative manner. A climax ensues, with the melody laid on a series of heavy chords. A sublime second section ensues, with delicate passages pere-echoing Arvo Pärt.

As the section proceeds, the melody becomes more ornamented, supported by airy textures from the ensemble. On the closing pages, the music is transformed into touching calmness, providing the piece a tranquil resolution.

Marvellously performed by the LA Phil strings and Dudamel, Walker’s Lyric for Strings is a powerful miniature, especially when clad in such fabulous sonorities. 

The episode closes with the Adagietto fourth movement from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in sharp minor (1902-03). For Dudamel, the symphony is a special case, for rehearsing and performing the score gained him the first prize in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004. He subsequently recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon in 2007 with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.       

Ever since those early days, the Mahler Fifth has been a part Dudamel’s repertoire. Over the years his reading has become more nuanced, as demonstrated by the luminous performance of the Adagietto captured here. 

Mahler based the Adagietto on a private song he had composed for his newly-wed wife Alma Schindler. While in Amsterdam, Mahler confided the origins of the movement to Willem Mengelberg, who inscribed the lyrics into his conducting score, now stored in the archives of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. 

Within the symphony’s overall structure, the Adagietto serves as a lyrical introduction to the exuberant Rondo-Finale. Scored for strings and harp, the movement has since gained a life of its own as a standalone concert item, appearing, most notably, in Robert Kennedy’s memorial service, conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Given its origins in song, the Adagietto should be performed with flowing, breath-like tempi, with swift string lines. It should be noted, that Mengelberg’s 1926 performance, the earliest recording available, clocks at circa seven and a half minutes. While contemporary performances seldom adopt such tempi, with notable exceptions by Sir Roger Norrington and Riccardo Chailly, the most memorable takes on the Adagietto tend to embrace the flowing nature of the score. 

Following its song-like opening, the Adagietto builds up to a compelling tableau of string sonics, employed in full spectrum, punctuated by the glimmering harp part. The music is clad in splendid autumnal hue, yielding to a resplendent sonic arch.

For the SOUND/STAGE performance, the LA Phil’s newly-appointed principal harp, Emmanuel Ceysson joins the orchestra for the first time. Conducted by Dudamel, the musicians of the LA Phil make Mahler’s translucent textures shine. 

A feast of lyricism and counterpoint, the performance of the Adagietto is marked by formidable phrasing and quite the ideal balance between the airy lightness of the violins and deep, dark shades from the lower registers, with the harp providing sublime coloring throughout the sonic spectrum. 

Dudamel and the safety-distanced LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl soundstage. © LA Phil

Beautifully wrapped together with short Neruda excerpts, read by María Valverde, these three pieces constitute a gripping programme. The well-shot concert film, directed by James Lees, are complemented by Sarah Ruhl’s Love Poems in Quarantine featured in the liner notes, as well as a short interview with J’Nai Bridges. 

The digital platform itself is clear-cut and works well on both mobile and desktop. Hopefully SOUND/STAGE will eventually carry on into the post-COVID era as well, for it would serve the orchestra’s large fanbase outside California just perfectly. 

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor 

J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano

Peter Lieberson: Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueras from Neruda Songs (2005) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra

George Walker: Lyric for Strings (1946)

Gustav Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in c sharp minor (1902-03)

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

First released on Friday 23 September 2020 at LA Phil SOUND/STAGE

© Jari Kallio 

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