At first glance, there was not much in common between the two halves of the programme in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra concert on Friday. Chronologically, the works are some almost two centuries apart, and the composers hail from diverse cultural backgrounds. On closer inspection, however, they seem to share at least a couple of themes: they were conceived to depict certain ideas other than the music itself, and they challenged the capability of the orchestra or musical conventions of their time.

© Mathew Imaging
© Mathew Imaging

About the opening work in the programme, Tromba lontana, the composer John Adams says in the programme notes: “Taking a subversive point of view on the idea of the generic loud, extrovert archetype of the fanfare, I composed a four-minute work that barely rises above mezzo-piano…” The work opened with a mixture of percussion that led to two trumpets at the far back of the stage playing a repetitive pattern of alternating long and short notes, persistent but not quite as rousing as a bugle call. The lower strings murmured throughout, as if providing a carpet on which the percussion and trumpets seemed to dart from one point to another. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel led the LA Philharmonic in a fluid and measured delivery that faithfully reflected the composer’s intention for the work to be an antithesis of the conventional fanfare, although I thought it sounded a little louder than “mezzo-piano”.

The first half of the programme concluded with Rituales Amerindios (Amerindian Rituals), described by composer Esteban Benzecry as a “Pre-Columbian Triptych for Orchestra”. The performance on Friday was the U.S. premiere of the work, which was commissioned by the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra and written in 2008.

Each of the three movements in the work represents one aspect of native (pre-Columbian) culture in Latin America. In his introduction to the work, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, concurrently music director of the Gothenberg Symphony and to whom it is dedicated, said that the work was inspired by “sounds that instil our indigenous people”, referring to his own cultural heritage. He also pointed to the ability of the work to challenge instruments of the orchestra in making sounds not normally associated with them.

The first movement, Ehécatl (Aztec wind god) was full of force and motion, opening with strong beats on the bass drum, which paved the way for strings that sounded as if they were skiing down a slippery slope, progressively becoming more strident. After a brief period of calm, the orchestra swung into action in a sonorous explosion that ended with a sweep on the guiro.

The second movement, Chaac (Mayan Water God) was more subdued and shrouded in mystery, but no less graphic. I began to understand what Mr Dudamel meant by the orchestra making sounds you wouldn’t expect them to make, when I saw the pianist lean into the piano to strum and pluck the strings instead of striking the keys, and one of the percussionists scraping a cymbal with a bow. After some hollow rumbling and roaring, the strings broke into a lyrical passage that gave way to the brass and winds in a flourish that signified the water god coming into maturity among the echoes of the rain forest.

Described as “Incan thunder god”, the third movement, entitled Illapa, was full of drums beating in unison to create the atmosphere of a folk ritual, trombones that sounded like bugles and muted trumpets that seemed to make a mockery of everything else.

The composer must have approved of the orchestra’s interpretation, as he joined the conductor on stage to acknowledge the standing ovation by a rapturous audience.

The second part of the concert consisted of only one work, Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. To say that the symphony is programme music is to underestimate its intrinsic value as a musical composition. Despite the fact that Berlioz attached some explicit descriptions of what each movement was about, he apparently wrote it in despair of his unrequited love for Irish actress Harriet Smithson.

A slow introduction on strings in the first movement, Rêveries: Passions (Reveries: Passions), led to a long allegro containing the melody often referred to as “idée fixe”, which would re-appear in all subsequent movements. Mr Duademel’s interpretation was suitably dreamy, swaying to the music as if immersed in its dreamy quality.

Un Ball (A Ball), the second movement, opened with an angelic episode on four harps before launching into the famous waltz that slowed to an introspective discussion of the idée fixe theme and ended on a triumphal conclusion.

The third movement, Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country) was written almost as if for the wind players only. The opening dialogue between the cor anglais on stage and the oboe off stage was sensitive and controlled. The oboe valiantly put up a struggle to break free, eventually losing the battle to the advancing strings. The cor anglais and timpani had the last say bringing the movement to an eerie and downcast finish.

The opening death march on timpani and lower strings in the fourth movement, Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold), was frequently interrupted by the bassoon and briefly developed into a dance in the horror chamber. However, the march of death was inexorable, and the clarinet’s attempt to bring out the idée fixe as salvation was short-lived.

As the work moved to its nightmarish conclusion in Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath), the strings and brass asserted themselves ritualistically. As the death knell sounded, the brass played the Dies Irae that degenerated into a chaotic dance and ended abruptly.

Throughout the evening, the LA Philharmonic demonstrated its unique ability to showcase fine solo playing without losing sight of the holistic unity of the works. Mr Dudamel deserved the star treatment he received from the audience.