The tell-tale sign was the ten – yes, ten – double basses. For this last leg of their 100th anniversary tour, the Los Angeles Philharmonic have come to London in numbers, going for a big, bold sound with bright colours and intense accenting in anything smacking of an insistent or scurrying rhythm.

Gustavo Dudamel © Mark Allan | Barbican
Gustavo Dudamel
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The two main works on last night’s programme certainly gave them the opportunity to show their mettle with complex, insistent rhythms. Both Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the concerto that preceded it abound in the creation of atmosphere through repetition and the addition of colour through polyrhythms. In the Stravinsky, one wonders how a conductor can keep track of it all, but Gustavo Dudamel, conducting without a score, clearly had his troops well marshalled. Dudamel doesn’t do the percussionist’s trick of beating different times with different parts of his body, but he has enough trust in his players to keep shifting his point of focus, cueing in and beating time for one particular section before moving on to the next.

Dudamel’s interpretation of The Rite of Spring was unusual but coherent. Many conductors treat Part 1 as a threatening foreboding of the human sacrifice to come: here, Dudamel gave us a festive atmosphere. If the opening lacked a certain Debussy-esque languor, the dances were lively and exciting, without a sense of impending doom. And this orchestra certainly can turn on the power: the closing Dance of the Earth was a proper piece of shock and awe, especially from a magnificent percussion section. The mood of Dudamel’s Part 2 was also unusual: until the final number, the overriding sense was not of the tension or horror of the ritual but of the unfathomable depths of its archaic mystery. Then, the spiritual calm changed to acceleration and the threat built to the convulsive ending.

Yuja Wang © Mark Allan | Barbican
Yuja Wang
© Mark Allan | Barbican

In John Adams’ latest concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, Yuja Wang impressed greatly with her ability to handle incredibly complex rhythms with the utmost clarity. But the work didn’t convince, falling between a number of stools. Billed as a modern-day Totentanz only more “Gritty, Funky”, the music started with low strings and percussive piano as the Liszt does, but didn’t come across as particularly demonic and harked more to film or TV music (with definite shades of Peter Gunn) than to proper funk. There were jazz elements in the rhythms, but virtuosic as Wang’s performance was, she never gave the sense either of freely improvising around the orchestra or of the cross-rhythms being strictly accurate and particularly felicitous.

But the pianistic surprise packet of the evening was Wang’s generous selection of encores: pieces by Tilson Thomas and Kapustin were very jazzy indeed and superbly executed, reminiscent of the Keith Jarrett solo concerts. To finish, Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade demonstrated how technical brilliance can be allied to lyrical expressivity – a real treat.

The orchestral surprise packet was Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, an eclectic concerto for orchestra giving each of the principals a chance to shine in multifarious styles. The highlight was the opening chamber-like nocturne for harp and solo cello (later repeated with harp and double bass), beautifully played by Emmanuel Ceysson. It’s a seldom-played work that I want to hear again.

To close: a joyous rendering of a piece that everyone in the audience will have known (at least in its abbreviated Python form): John Philip Sousa’s The Liberty Bell. Dudamel may be a Latino by nature, but he clearly relished this most Yankee of works, with beaming smiles from conductor, orchestra and audience.



****1