The total timing of the music on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season premiere was barely an hour long. On the page the line-up looked strange. First half: Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and the world premiere of a work by local composer Steven Stucky. The second half: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Yet not only did the program on Friday, 28 September prove to be a fine one to formally open the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season. It was also further evidence that the relationship between orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel – now beginning his fourth season at the head of the organization—is one of the most satisfying in the symphony orchestra today.

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil © Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil
© Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

Dudamel’s electric Rite – a vast improvement over his curiously dull DG recording – didn’t skimp on the music’s violence. The ending of Part 1 was as if the Rite barreled into Disney Hall with all the force of a locomotive. But there were moments where one felt that Dudamel was still finding his way in the work. This was especially apparent at the work’s beginning and end. Perhaps more audacious than the loudest parts of the work are its very opening bars; that quasi-improvisatory web of nocturnal chirpings and screeches that more than anything else in the ballet stamp upon the musical culture of its day the definitive arrival of the 20th century. There the phrasing and timing felt stiff. Instead of flowing with near-freedom, it spurted out bar-by-bar. In the closing “Sacrificial Dance” the problem again arose, neutering the wildness of the music. But everything else in between found orchestra and conductor at the peak of inspiration.

Coming before the intermission was Steven Stucky’s Symphony, a world premiere. The concise four-movement work – each followed the other without pause – begins with an angular, mournful oboe melody that gets passed around among the winds; it eventually metamorphoses into a heroic, yet unsettling hymn first stated by the horns, then later by the full orchestra. Episodes followed where the music thrashes angrily then surges forward, until finally winding to a close on the opening oboe melody.

If there was any sense of the composer being intimidated by his symphonic forebears, it never showed in the music. It was music that was expressive; demanding the listener’s attention. It also was the work of a composer that relishes the sound and possibilities of the orchestra; its ability to dazzle listeners with color. There were moments where the music almost had the flavor of a modern-day Respighi – by way of Lutosławski. But ultimately it was pure Stucky, delievered by Dudamel and the orchestra with a conviction and security that belied the newness of the music.

The odd man out in the program was its opening, the tenderly elegiac Pavane by Ravel. Yet if it didn’t fit in stylistically with the rest of the program, it nonetheless bore eloquent witness to the range of expression and style of the orchestra and conductor. It was a performance that was serenely wistful and knew when to pull on the music’s undercurrent of deeper melancholy.

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