It is a much anticipated night when Gustavo Dudamel, being the poster child for expressive and colourful conducting, is in town with the LA Philharmonic. Tonight, for their first of two nights in Davies Symphony Hall, they presented to us an equally colourful program, headed by Play, written by Andrew Norman in 2013, and followed by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor.

Gustavo Dudamel © Nohely Oliveros
Gustavo Dudamel
© Nohely Oliveros

To commence, Norman himself walked onto the stage to talk about the ideas behind his work. There is a lot of thought that went into the making of Play. It explores weighty and relevant ideas “about choice, chance, free will and control, about how technology has rewired our brains and changed the ways we express ourselves.” How this translates into the piece is in the way that the percussion instruments were set to control the rest of the orchestra. They had the power to turn the others on or off, make them play faster, slower, louder, softer and so on. Then, as the piece progresses, the rest of the orchestra begins to find their own voice against the “oppressive systems of control” and the piece ends with a music that is formed out of communal expression, not overbearing control.

The work is written like a video game where the movements are labelled ‘Level 1, 2 and 3'. Level 1 opened brightly with the timbres of various percussion instruments being banged, splashed and dinged, while strings were sliding and bows were bounced and brass and woodwinds added their own colours to the canvas. At first it was difficult to follow the music. Indeed for the first few minutes I found myself trying to catch where different sounds were coming out from while scrambling to find a musical line for my ears to attach to. This wasn’t a bad thing; I think this is exactly the ‘chaos’ that was intended by Norman. Level 2 opened with a very different mood, the pace slower and more sombre. It was darker with the quiet, almost ghostly bouncing of the bows from the strings section, perhaps to echo the percussive nature of their ‘controller’. There are little fragments of sound from various sections of the orchestra and eventually this movement closes with the orchestra in a suspended, silent and frozen state which forms the start of Level 3. From that frozen silence, the instruments began to play quietly and individually in short wisps. Slowly, it started to come together and there was more coherence in the music that was formed – “the first truly communal expression in the entire piece, that they had been trying to find all along.” (Norman)

There are plenty of original and clever ideas in this piece and I can see why Norman is the recipient of Musical America’s 2017 Composer of the Year award. To me, Play would probably need to be listened to a few more times to absorb. The beauty in this piece didn’t come from particular solo lines or melodies but, as is common in some contemporary repertoire, it’s the kind of work to be enjoyed from a more holistic and global perspective to appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness behind it. Upon first hearing though, it did leave me thinking about the piece and it certainly impressed.

The second half of the night was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This was a triumph in itself, roaring applause greeting its final movement. Dudamel led the orchestra with his characteristic zeal, opening the first movement with imposing resonance from the brass section. Phrases were shaped beautifully and there was a distinct energy carried through the orchestra. The Andantino second movement, with its moving and mellow oboe solo from Marion Kuszyk, coloured the night with a completely different mood, while the Scherzo made me appreciate the coordination required to produce such unified pizzicatos whilst still producing its jovial character. In the Finale, though it was late into the night, the orchestra showed no signs of tiring, but instead excited us with the crashing of cymbals and fanfares from the strings and brass. The “Fate” motif made its presence felt, but with a liveliness that was just simply sensational. A truly wonderful night which truly confirms Dudamel’s and the LA Philharmonic’s excellence.