Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on Sunday.CreditKevin Yatarola
By Seth Colter Walls
What defines the Los Angeles Philharmonic? Is it the music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel’s exciting performances of symphonies central to the repertory? Or is it the risks the orchestra takes on rarities and new pieces — including what feels like a Year of 1,000 Commissions for its centennial next season? (O.K., not quite that many. But it’s a lot.)
The fact that the answer is, truly, “both” is a testament to the Philharmonic’s excellence on more fronts than almost any other ensemble. But since this orchestra is so skilled at making whole seasons seem essential, it’s a challenge to convey all its many facets during a short tour stop.
This weekend, over a two-concert stand at David Geffen Hall, Los Angeles decided to play things somewhat conservatively — at least by its standards.
Both shows were anchored by war horses: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 (on Friday) and Beethoven’s Ninth (on Sunday). These performances were consistently gripping, thanks to sharp playing and smart interpretive moves. The less obvious works surrounding these standards, though, were not as distinguished — which came as a mild shock, given this orchestra’s flair for the atypical.
On Friday, Edgard Varèse’s sublimely noisy “Amériques” had some requisite dark energy. And the siren peals that pepper the work — originally written for 142 players, but scaled back to a 125-person orchestra in Varèse’s 1927 revision — were plenty loud on Mr. Dudamel’s watch.
But it isn’t meant to be merely an exercise in dinning textures. This version was missing some of the modernist suavity that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony brought across in a 2012 Carnegie Hall outing. With Mr. Dudamel and Los Angeles, some of Varèse’s peculiar rhythmic pileups seemed light on experimental charm, between the louder, showstopping exclamations.
Among living composers, few are as familiar to New York audiences as Esa-Pekka Salonen; Mr. Dudamel’s predecessor as conductor in Los Angeles is currently wrapping up a multiyear composer-in-residence position with the New York Philharmonic. His “Pollux,” heard in its New York premiere on Friday, shares with Mr. Salonen’s other recent works the ability to foment surging themes from arid opening materials. But this piece seemed choppier in design than several of his more finely wrought jewels of orchestration, like “Helix,” from 2005, which the conductor Susanna Malkki spun into gold during a recent New York Philharmonic visit.
The weekend’s most inspired appetizer turned out to be the performance on Sunday of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.” The orchestra reveled in each twist of this buoyant and surprising piece; navigating the bluesy harmony in the setting of Psalm 23, the grain of the Los Angeles cellos suggested a divine shuddering.
Similarly fine touches helped keep the account of Beethoven’s Ninth from ever seeming on autopilot. It was a performance that approached the piece as an insoluble, involving mystery, rather than as a familiar totem. In the first movement, Mr. Dudamel allowed some dynamic shifts to come seemingly out of nowhere — anticipating some of the finale’s electrically strange transitions. The pulse of the scherzo was insistent in a nervy, exciting fashion that contrasted well with the luxurious way Mr. Dudamel lingered over the third movement’s airier meditations.
The expressive wildness of the final movement was rousing. (Rarely does Beethoven’s oddball interjection of bassoon sound more perfectly ingenious.) The vocal soloists didn’t always sound ideally blended during some ensemble passages. But thanks to some powerful work from the Concert Chorale of New York, the overall journey toward a crashing climax had plenty of dramatic heft.
Even better was Shostakovich’s Fifth on Friday. The political commentary intended by its composer has long been a subject of speculation. Just how satirical is the Stalin-mandated triumphalism? How drearily compelled should it sound?
The Los Angeles players managed to subvert some of this dichotomy, opting for a “both-and” style, rather than “either-or.” There was some parodic parading in the second movement, reminiscent of acidic touches in Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose.” But Mr. Dudamel and his players brought out the sincere, deep feeling of Shostakovich’s mournful Largo equally well. By the conclusion of the finale, it was possible to detect both genuine civic pride and the tragic political developments of its moment.
Was it unfair to want more than this potent subtlety from the Philharmonic? It’s only because of the quantity of singular events this orchestra engineers for Walt Disney Concert Hall, at home in Los Angeles, that I was left hoping that it had incorporated more of those tricks into the road show. Next time, perhaps Lincoln Center should book them for a third set.