The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Casual Fridays” are a commendable initiative that brings audiences closer to the music and musicians in a less formal environment. The performers dress down for the occasion, throw in a dialogue with the audience and make themselves available at a drinks reception after the concert. To add a touch of intimacy, a member of the orchestra prefaces the music with some personal remarks. On Friday, principal trumpet Thomas Hooten described his recruitment into “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in Washington, D.C. and subsequent career with the Atlanta and Indianapolis Symphonies before arriving in Los Angeles. Presumably to keep the evening to a manageable length, an item on the Saturday and Sunday programme – Wojieck Kilar’s Krzesany – was omitted from the performance on Friday. Fortunately, this was the only disappointment of the evening.

Krzysztof Urbanski © Joanna Urbanska
Krzysztof Urbanski
© Joanna Urbanska

With his reputation built almost exclusively on works for solo piano, Chopin has endured criticism for poor orchestration in two concertos quite disproportionate to their importance in his output. Yet even as an adjunct to the soloist’s exhibition, the orchestra in these works has plenty of room to make a difference. This was not lost on conductor Krzysztof Urbański. Under his baton in the Piano Concerto no. 2, the LA Phil produced a sound that was crisp and lush at the same time, much like freshly plucked flowers on a nippy morning. The orchestral introduction to the first movement contained a fine balance of expressive colours between the chirpy woodwinds and verdant strings. Despite the dominance of the soloist throughout the work, the orchestra fully grasped the subtleties of its role as “royal consort”, as it were. The bassoon and horns provided sporadic counterbalances to the piano, and tremolo strings were a reliable safety net for the undulating solo.

Khatia Buniatishvili © Julia Wesely
Khatia Buniatishvili
© Julia Wesely
Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili was fluid and smooth as silk in her delivery of the solo part, refined and delectable in every detail. Meticulously shaping the contours of each melodic line, she never lost sight of the unity of the whole or flaunted virtuosity for its own sake. Restrained and introspective in the slow movement, she gave it just the right touch of wistfulness without an overdose of romanticism. If it is true that the movement was inspired by Chopin’s undeclared love for fellow student and soprano Konstancja Gladkowska, she did full justice to his intentions. Youthful and bouncy in the mazurka of the final movement, she was refreshing rather than frenetic.

As Prokofiev was about to raise the baton to conduct the première of his Fifth Symphony in the Moscow Conservatory in 1945, he was interrupted by the sound of canon fire in the distance celebrating the triumph of Soviet forces which had just crossed the Vistula River. No such drama attended LA Phil’s performance on Friday, but the impact of the work on the audience would not have been any less. Although Prokofiev is said to have described his Fifth Symphony as “glorifying the human spirit”, we can never be quite sure whether he meant what he said or simply issued the description to please the Soviet commissars who provided the refuge outside Moscow where he composed the symphony towards the end of World War II. Nevertheless, in Friday’s performance Maestro Urbański and the LA Phil left us in no doubt that they took a sanguine view of humanity.

The subdued theme of the opening movement, first on bassoon and flutes, soon plunged into the unfathomable depth of double basses, putting a veil of ominous gravity on an otherwise innocuous statement of hope. Percussion and brass threw their weight behind chirpy woodwinds and energetic strings that swept aside all lugubriousness with new material of epic grandeur, with the full orchestra joining in a fanfare portending victory.

The Scherzo second movement provided potent material for irony and sarcasm. Yet the innocent gallop on clarinet transformed into a dance of mechanical dolls with the help of the snare drum and woodblock that sounded like nothing more than good, clean fun.

A brief sense of anguish seemed to descend on the scene with the third movement, deftly lifted out of torpor by the soaring strings with the help of emphatic brass. The theme from the first movement returned in the finale, now a clear signpost to optimism. Bubbly woodwinds, rattling percussion and raging brass brought it to a joyful high to close this “casual” Friday, which the LA Phil took seriously to heart.

*****