Hearing the Los Angeles Philharmonic Outdoors and iPalpiti Indoors

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

In the good old summertime in the Los Angeles area, classical music heads outdoors to Hollywood Bowl or, defying the seasonal practice, indoors in the case of iPalpiti’s Festival of International Laureates. So let’s take a sampling from both over a long July weekend.

First, it was off to the Bowl last Thursday night to witness the return of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the prodigal son who has re-established his residence in Los Angeles while keeping the other foot firmly planted in London. There was plenty of star power onstage as well as in the night skies – with Esa-Pekka, allied with the keyboard prowess of Yuja Wang, again proving that on any given day, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is still his band even after five seasons under Gustavo Dudamel.

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Katja Tähjä)

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Katja Tähjä)

For his first Bowl date since leading Mahler’s Eighth in 2008, Salonen concocted an evening of Russian Firsts – the first Piano Concertos and Symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich – the kind of creative numerical programming that sets off thoughts of why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before. It’s a great idea, unifying a clutch of key works by two genius-level enfants terrible in their late-teens and 20s who were also piano virtuosos, all written in Russia during a period of tumultuous transition from Nicholas II to Stalin I.

Alas, Salonen buys into the lamentably fashionable practice of taking the first movement of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony at a much slower tempo than the composer’s metronome marking – which weighs it down and destroys its wit and sparkle. Most conductors nowadays do that, ignoring Prokofiev and wonderfully spiffy early recordings by the likes of Koussevitzky, Ormandy, Toscanini, and a dark horse that I recently came across, William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony. But Salonen has developed a terrific grasp of Shostakovich’s First Symphony, bristling with explosive climaxes and the smart-alecky snark of the 19-year-old composer.

Yuja Wang (medici.tv)

Yuja Wang (medici.tv)

Using a score, Wang does not seem to have grown comfortable with Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto yet; what little humor there was sounded heavy-handed, and her cadenza in the finale was a jumbled structure with misplaced accents. Yet Wang’s Prokofiev First Piano Concerto was another story – roaring out of the chute after the faux-pompous orchestral intro, her steel-fingered bombast entirely appropriate for early Prokofiev, easily the most impressive live outing I’ve experienced from this pianist. Fashion reportage is normally not on my radar, but since you asked … Wang came out for Shostakovich in one of her now-notorious black micro-skirts, and for Prokofiev in an even more provocative turquoise outfit with bare midriff and slashed up above her thighs.

The following Sunday afternoon – the one day in which Southern California’s overcrowded freeway system can be counted upon to cooperate, maybe – I journeyed all the way to Aliso Viejo deep within the hills of Orange County to hear the iPalpiti Orchestra in the new Soka Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2011. “Soka” is a Japanese word that roughly means “to create value” (as in “values”), the mission of the extremely-well-endowed Soka University of America that houses this 1,032-seat concert hall. The acoustician is a familiar name,Yasuhisa Toyota – the wizard responsible for the sound in Walt Disney Concert Hall – and the surround aspect of the semi-circular seating, the highly-modified shoebox shape, and abundance of wood reflecting surfaces right down to the white cedar stage have his fingerprints all over them.

Reflecting pools at Soka University of America (Richard S. Ginell)

Reflecting pools at Soka University of America (Richard S. Ginell)

My first reaction upon hearing iPalpiti – a young, highly-skilled, internationally-staffed string orchestra under the knowing direction of Eduard Schmieder – was that Toyota has created a resonant gem of a hall. Soka sounds far more reverberant than Disney Hall; my own rough estimate of the decay was close to three seconds, which is a lot. Yet iPalpiti’s strings absolutely bloomed in this space, delivering a deep, rich bass in a movement from a C.P.E. Bach “Hamburg” Sinfonia in A, floating almost Stokowski-like in pater J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String” with terrific control of dynamics.

Schmieder then presided over a lovingly conducted and played rendition of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in a workable hybrid of period-performance clarity and luscious modern-instrument tone. Iceland’s Disella Lárusdóttir displayed a big uninhibited operatic soprano, and Daniel Bubeck must have been delighted with the way Soka projected his pure, precise countertenor voice.

Soka Performing Arts Center, Aliso Viejo, CA (Richard S. Ginell)

Soka Performing Arts Center, Aliso Viejo, CA (Richard S. Ginell)

Ah, but the addition of five percussionists in Rodion Shchedrin’s marvelously cheeky Carmen-Suite pointed out that all of that reverberation can lead to problems. The sharp pings and pops and ringings of Shchedrin’s witty percussion embellishments to Bizet’s familiar tunes turned into murky, often overloud splats, leading to some early sync problems and causing some of the jokes – like the silent treatment of the “Toreador Song” – to fall flat. But Schmieder clearly was having fun with Bizet-Shchedrin, toying with the tempo fluctuations as far as he could get away with, and the strings were as completely unified and opulent as before. Presumably the percussion section will be better-defined when this performance repeats in Disney Hall Saturday night July 26.

Date posted: July 24, 2014

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