The first part of Thomas Adés’ new ballet Inferno, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, was world-premiered this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel... but without the dancers.

Gustavo Dudamel © Gerardo Gomez | Fundamusical
Gustavo Dudamel
© Gerardo Gomez | Fundamusical

It is asking a lot of a ballet score to carry such a tremendous load alone on a concert stage especially when there's only the sketch of a story. Adés’ complete program notes read, “The music of this ballet is a grateful tribute to Franz Liszt, the composer of Hell and demonic music. The score plays continuously.” Each of the thirteen sections has a title and a brief description. Paolo and Francesca, for example, "the adulterers: the endless whirlwind." Or The Popes, "(the politically ambitious) – stuffed head first down a hole, one on top of the other."

Inferno, commissioned by the Philharmonic to mark its centenary year, turned out be a 46-minute span of astounding, ingenious, sumptuous effects with a particular genius for unlikely combinations of instruments like oboes and violas, and only a few obvious Lisztian references. There were so many fascinating colors produced that you eagerly looked to see which instruments were involved. There were always dialogues going on among different instruments and sections of the orchestra. Principal cellist Robert deMaine starred in some of the most gorgeous of the solos. The percussion department kept busy. There were a few intoxicating Romantic tunes, and a delirious waltz out of Gerard Hoffnung topped off by a delicious piccolo solo.

I tried to keep up with the composer's printed blurbs but got lost and just went with the flow. The audience loved it from the start and fell hard for a totally Haydnesque prank: at the 40-minute mark, in the 12th movement (Thieves; see below), a furious galop out of Offenbach by way of Shostakovich with Adés’ own distinctive, disarming, addictive touches, seemed to be the whip 'em up finale we'd all been waiting for. But no. When it was over and the audience began to surge out of their seats for the standing ovation, Dudamel on the podium waited a beat and then dropped his baton to let them know there was more; the audience retreated to their seats for a quietly ecstatic five-minute finale in which Dante and Virgil “climb out of Hell and see the stars.” Then they went wild.

The Pavan of the Souls in Limbo, The Deviants crawling across burning sand, The Thieves who transform themselves into giant lizards, and all the rest will return with Adés to Los Angeles in July for a fully-staged performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion by The Royal Ballet with choreography by Wayne McGregor.

Adés’ new score had originally been slated to open the concert followed by Mozart’s First Violin Concerto and then, after intermission, by Mozart’s last symphony. But when Inferno turned out to be twice as long as anticipated, it became the entire second half of the concert, and Mozart's little K.207 followed in the shadow of the mighty Jupiter.

Despite Dudamel’s earnest intentions to give some sense of Mozartian style to the symphony, such as little dynamic swells and a slightly elongated pause in the opening phrase, it was big orchestra LA Phil Mozart, the smooth strings, somewhat reduced in number with only four double basses, infusing the music with broader notions of nuance and shape. Throughout, the woodwinds threw musical kisses to the audience led by a whimsical bassoonist and a pair of delightfully serious oboes. More than usual they put individual personality into their solo riffs.

The start was brisk with aggressively martial trumpets and timpani hammered by small, hard-headed drumsticks. The Adagio had a genuine Mozartian lilt, young and gently ardent, in which the horns played most beautifully. The Molto allegro was very fast, occasionally bumptious, and ushered out at the end by the same trumpets and drums that had started things off. When Dudamel brought the music to its end with a sudden rush, the audience took a moment to exhale before letting out their cheers.

Playing Mozart's innocent early concerto after the “Jupiter” proved to be as cruel a task as one could imagine. The performance began with an unintentional musical joke in the horns and never quite recovered its equilibrium. Michael Barenboim was perky and charming, scrambled a bit in an insanely fast Presto, and furnished cadenzas of his own – long, schizophrenic musical mashups of disjointed styles including thrilling ascending and descending thirds, and hints of Paganini and Beethoven.

*****