Sharing a concert with Beethoven can be a tough assignment. The old stalwart is, with good reason, still a popular draw to the concert hall. As part of its centenary celebration of Witold Lutosławski, the LA Phil chose to pair music of Beethoven with that of the Polish composer. While such a technique would commonly be used to draw a crowd for a concert featuring “modern” music, in this case it was a much more insightful move with surprising results. As it turns out, the two Lutosławski pieces were the undoubtable successes of the night, with the Beethoven lagging behind in both energy and proficiency.
The program consisted of two halves, almost identical in length. The first half featured the brief Beethoven overture and then the Lutosławski symphony. After intermission, the very, very short Lutosławski piece was performed before the Beethoven symphony. The cleverness of mirroring of the two composers in the two halves was not lost on the audience. As for the music itself, Lutosławski’s compositions, particularly his Symphony no. 1, are those of uncommon structural strength. Balanced with a unique, but not esoteric, tonal language and rhythmically exciting patterns, this is music that is consistently interesting. It is also accessible on many levels, even to the casual listener. It is scored for a large orchestra including piano, celeste, harp, and ample percussion. Given all these ingredients, it shouldn’t be surprising that the LA Phil’s performance was outstanding in every way.
As an orchestra that is noted for its performances of 20th-century music, the LA Phil have the energy and talent to bring difficult music like this to a wider audience. Strings were pulsating with remarkable dexterity in the first movement. The orchestra navigated the constantly changing meters of the first with furious precision, synchronizing syncopated accents perfectly between winds and percussion. The second movement featured a sublime horn solo played by Andrew Bain, which was sensitively accompanied by the subservient winds. The final two movements were played with astonishing force and drive. The brass, particularly the trombones, were immensely powerful and rang out through Disney Hall.
Salonen’s leadership throughout the symphony, consistently driving ahead with elbows and forearms thrusting downward, brought out the best in the orchestra. His affinity for this music is abundantly clear (there was a short documentary video shown between the overture and the symphony on Lutosławski, featuring Salonen), as was his ability to navigate through the music on a technical and emotional level. The anticipation for Lutosławski’s shattering climaxes was palpable throughout the hall. Likewise, the Fanfare was performed with the utmost technical ability and pregnant energy, and produced an audible gasp from the audience at its conclusion. It is a piece (literally) tailored for this orchestra both in ability and character of sound. Salonen’s style and leadership produced brilliant results.
This certainly raises the question, however: what was missing from the Beethoven? The King Stephen Overture began at a meandering tempo and with some imprecise playing. The first theme was breezy and joyous enough, but, despite no lack of energy or direction from Salonen, there was a certain freshness missing. Unfortunately, this was also the case with the Symphony no. 2, which closed the evening’s program. Salonen’s tempi weren’t plodding, but were moderate. The players were much better attuned to each other than in the overture, as one would expect after so much Lutosławski, but the intensity was lacking. This was most apparent in the Larghetto, which featured some luscious playing by the strings, but the sound was broad and uninteresting. Salonen tended to slacken the reins too much in the development sections where dynamics were quieter and texture was sparser. This led to outbursts that seemed poorly prepared. This is not to say there was no excitement, as Salonen still dashed ahead and was downright manic in his physical gestures, but the lack of suspense and anticipation throughout the reading made for an ordinary performance.
Thankfully, “ordinary” Beethoven is still better than many composer’s best. In the case of Saturday’s performance, though, an outstanding performance of Lutosławski was more than enough of a draw and a worthy way to celebrate the composer’s legacy.