A tense, Holocaust-inspired orchestral work by Henri Dutilleux followed by one of Mozart’s most chipper piano concertos on one half; a second half consisting of only the Beethoven Symphony no. 5. That's a strange enough combination on paper – and hearing it actually realized is stranger still. You have to wonder what they were thinking. And by “they” I mean whoever devised the oddball program that guest conductor Ludovic Morlot conducted last night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Dutilleux, who celebrated his 97th birthday on 22 January, is without question a contemporary master; one of our greatest living composers. Mozart and Beethoven are, of course, Mozart and Beethoven. A Dutilleux and Beethoven dyad would have been an interesting musical illustration of “per aspera ad astra”. But the power of both works were diluted by sandwiching Mozart and an intermission between them. Morlot’s rambling traversal of the Beethoven symphony did no favors either.
Nevertheless, Dutilleux’s five-movement The Shadows of Time, which opened the concert, managed to be the program’s sole bright point, despite its somber subject matter. Though inspired by the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the discovery of the diaries of Anne Frank, the work, while often moody, never surrendered to despair, instead exuding a Ravelian brightness at times. Ravel, in fact, seemed never to be too far away in this music – albeit a Ravel tipsy on Expressionism and atonality, staggering uneasily amongst string glissandos and bent woodwind tones. The work’s central movement adds the color of three children’s voices intoning the phrases: “Why us? Why the star [of David]?” Yet in that child’s voice – and throughout the piece – could be heard something like a fragile optimism; an echo of the Anne Frank that once said “I have often been downcast, but never in despair.”
Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 belongs to a different expressive world altogether: breezy, cheeky, and shot through with sunlight. Morlot and the orchestra were fine partners, but this was really soloist Emanuel Ax’s show and he was clearly in control of the proceedings. His Mozart was a little cool, but had an immaculate patina.
After the intermission was the Beethoven Symphony no. 5. Artur Schnabel once said that Beethoven’s music was “better than it could ever be played”. His music is, in any case, better than Morlot’s limp conception of the music. Yes, the orchestra’s execution was flawless. But the danger in the music – Goethe did, after all, once refer to this symphony as a “danger to civilization” – was totally absent.