It may have been the opening concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s fall season at Walt Disney Concert Hall, but it felt more like a continuation of summer at the Hollywood Bowl. You could call it a “soft opening,” since the “real” opening night concert gala will take place on Oct. 24, when the orchestra celebrates its 100th birthday. That event, with all the attendant hoopla, will feature a trio of LA Phil music directors: Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Zubin Mehta.
Thursday’s pops-style, all-American program with Dudamel on the podium opened with the lilting soprano of Julia Bullock singing Samuel Barber’s reverie, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Attentively conducted by Dudamel, Bullock wistfully led her audience through Barber’s atmospheric evocation of childhood memories set to James Agee’s poetic text drawn from his novel, A Death in the Family. It was one of those dulcet, “rocking gently” performances, like a breeze fluttering through the leaves, that transports you to another time and place.
What followed, however, was anything but pastoral, wistful, or dulcet — a pedal-to-the-metal, crank-up-the-volume-to-11 performance of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F with Jean-Yves Thibaudet pounding away on the 88s. It was brash and raucous and anything but subtle, though the trumpet stylings of Thomas Hooten did provide a nocturnal interlude that evoked Gershwin’s wet street sense of blues in the night.
It was as big and showy as the Barber had been serene and introspective. The audience gave Thibaudet a tumultuous ongoing ovation at the end of the first movement, Allegro. Then they discovered there was more but had plenty left in the tank for a second ovation at the end.
Paying Homage to André Previn
Of all the music directors that have led the LA Phil in the modern era, none found the experience more contentious and conflicted than André Previn, from his appointment in 1985 to his to angry resignation and departure in 1989 when he swore he’d never work in this town again, and didn’t.
Previn often found himself at loggerheads with the Philharmonic’s domineering executive director, Ernest Fleischmann, while having his concerts repeatedly beaten up in the press by the LA Times’ recently deceased music critic, Martin Bernheimer. Bernheimer relentlessly berated Previn’s performances, particularly when he programmed works from the English repertory, including a memorable performance of William Walton’s 1931 cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast.
Previn also suffered from being good at (and appreciating) too many kinds of music — from his skill as an improvising jazz pianist to committing the cardinal sin of writing music for the movies, and winning an Academy Award.
So when the LA Phil began planning its centenary season — partly as an act of contrition, partly as an obligatory act of inclusion — they reached out to Previn and offered him a commission. Ultimately, he died in 2019, leaving the score unfinished.
Thursday, Dudamel and the Philharmonic did pay homage to Previn by performing his musical pastiche from 2016, Can Spring Be Far Behind? The work may reference spring in its title, but its tone of looking back is far more autumnal. It’s composed as a series of melodic/orchestral vignettes which are stitched together like a patchwork quilt. It abounds in skillfully crafted and atmospheric musical moments — from lushly romantic to mildly jazzy, vaguely operatic, and unabashedly cinematic.
A staccato entrance for horns and percussion sets the piece in motion and it quickly moves into a colorful panorama (without a hint of dissonance), sometimes evoking nature (as in the Barber) or urban streets (a la Gershwin) with lush string parts that swell to silver screen proportion. It’s consistently pleasant, but far from memorable.
It’s too bad, since Julia Bullock was available, that Dudamel did not invite her to sing Previn’s star-turn aria, “I Want Magic” from A Streetcar Named Desire. Ironically, the soprano that first sang the role of Blanche, Renée Fleming, was across the street rehearsing for her upcoming performances with LA Opera in The Light in the Piazza.
Dudamel ended the concert with a beautifully detailed performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The addition of a roof and the bright acoustics of Disney Hall certainly made it sound better than it did not that long ago at the Hollywood Bowl.