I caught the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a time warp Saturday night. They had just returned from a grueling transatlantic ten-day five-city tour under Gustavo Dudamel alternating two huge programs: Salonen Pollux-Varèse Amériques-Shostakovich Fifth Symphony and Bernstein Chichester Psalms-Beethoven Ninth Symphony. Plus a concert by the LA Phil New Music Group of music by Frederic Rzewski, Julius Eastman and Ted Hearne.

Katia and Marielle Labèque © Weigold & Böhm
Katia and Marielle Labèque
© Weigold & Böhm

With barely a week to rest from their Boston-Washington D.C.-New York-London-Paris excursion they are now headed into a massive Schumann binge wrapping up the season during which they will play the symphonies, the cello (Sol Gabetta) and piano (Mitsuko Uchida) concertos, and, of all things, Das Paradies und die Peri directed by Peter Sellars with video by Refik Anadol.

To soften the blow of the jet lag the usual weekend set of three or four concerts was shortened to only two, soloists were engaged to play both an opening solo piece without the orchestra and a concerto with orchestra. And a few brilliant subs filled in without missing a beat to give a few of the more winded front-line troops a rest.

The concert would have been a different sort of interesting if it had opened with Schubert’s F minor Fantasy as had been originally considered but quickly abandoned; perhaps the Labèques realized that introducing Bruch’s massive Concerto for 2 pianos and orchestra with an icon of Romantic imagination would have been too much of a good thing.

As it was, the bright, innocent colors of the Labeques’ chic, flirty Mother Goose Suite amplified the impact of the first stentorian chords of the Bruch played by the orchestra and the sight of the two magnificently flamboyant, and very hard-working pianists, all intertwined as they would be for virtually the entire concerto; the audience didn’t know whether they were in for Rachmaninov or Liszt but they sure knew the two sisters could produce incredible volumes and waves of sound, faster than a speeding bullet when required, and that they’d better fasten their seat belts and get ready for a bumpy ride. 

It didn’t seem that way at the start when the first movement, after opening with that grim doomsday fanfare, kept up the intensity seriously until a retro Mendelssohnian Allegro molto vivace lifted spirits and provided endless delights of spun lyrical beauty after which an Adagio of radiant beauty ushered in… oh no – the same stentorian chords that the Concerto had opened with. But no matter. Within a few moments the sisters were off again on more splendid, thrilling adventures of lovely tunes and death-defying virtuosity.

Bruch wrote all this wonderful stuff when he was 73 for the American duo-team Rose and Otillie Sutro who premiered in 1916 with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. On Saturday night the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with associate concertmaster Nathan Cole in the concertmaster’s seat, played with gusto and luscious romantic colors, while Semyon Bychkov, who probably knows the work as well as any conductor on earth (he recorded it with the Labèques in 1993), kept everything together and exciting, and the audience ate it up.

After intermission, the orchestra bulked up with regulars, Martin Chalifour returned to his accustomed concertmaster’s place, and yet it never quite jelled. All the big solos were handled with consummate ease - Andrew Bain’s glorious horn solos were typical of how well the winds sung out the incidental beauties that Dvořák so casually strews along the path of this glorious if occasionally unwieldy symphony. But Bychkov was less successful in that other essential of Dvořák Op.70 in D minor: convincing the orchestra to move with spontaneous energy to relieve the monotony of Dvořák's relentless onward tread. 

Proving audiences are more important than critics, the audience responded as if they were hearing the Symphony for the first time. They were overwhelmed and let the musicians know it. Good start to the home stand.