Edgy New Concerto Challenges ‘Safety’ Of Hollywood Bowl

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Daníel Bjarnason’s new violin concerto, performed by Pekka Kuusisto, gets marquee billing at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Faceboook, Edition Peters US)

By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — It has been a rough time for Gustavo Dudamel lately. He finally shed his persistent neutrality on the Venezuelan situation in May by denouncing the violence in his country – and paid the price last Sunday when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro abruptly cancelled the first U.S. tour of Dudamel’s new National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (the planned stops were Wolf Trap on Sept. 9, the Ravinia Festival on Sept. 14, Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 17, and Berkeley’s Greek Theatre on Sept. 21). “Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel,” Maduro sneered in a televised speech on Aug. 18.

It must have been difficult for Dudamel to concentrate on music with all of this tsuris raining down on what until recently has seemed to be a charmed musical life. But concentrate Dudamel did as he returned to the friendly territory of the Hollywood Bowl – the vast concrete amphitheater in which Dudamel made his U.S. debut in 2005 – on Aug. 22 with his Los Angeles Philharmonic. There was a world premiere to tend to – Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s strange new Violin Concerto – plus Holst’s sprawling tour of the cosmos, The Planets.

Composer Daníel Bjarnason (left) chats with Finnish violin maverick Pekka Kuuisisto.
(Rusk Festival, 2014, courtesy YLE.fi)

Bjarnason’s new piece has had a complicated birth. It was supposed to have received its first performance during the LA Philharmonic’s Reykjavík Festival –  which Bjarnason co-curated – last April. But the piece wasn’t finished in time because the composer was still occupied by a concurrent opera commission (Brothers), so the premiere was delayed until this summer. Bjarnason is a busy man, riding the wave of interest in contemporary Icelandic music that the LA Phil has been churning.

Moreover, when first announced, his new piece was just called Violin Concerto. Later, when more details were available, the piece had acquired a name, Scordatura, after the fact that the solo violin’s lowest string (normally tuned to G) is detuned down to a low D in the piece. But at concert time, word came down from the LA Phil that the piece had reverted to its original title of simply Violin Concerto. Whatever.

Finnish violin maverick Pekka Kuusisto (Kaapo Kamu)

Mindful of the Scandinavian folk music that Finnish violin maverick Pekka Kuusisto – for whom the piece was written – occasionally plays, Bjarnason launched his concerto by having Kuusisto pluck the strings on his retuned fiddle and whistle softly. With the bottom string so obviously way out of its natural range, the violin made an abrasive, gravelly multiple-stop sound unlike any you are likely to hear in a conventional violin concerto.

In the first of a pair of improvised cadenzas, Kuusisto played sustained tremolos in octaves in which the retuned string lends a spatial quality to the sound, almost simulating Bjarnason’s orchestral textures on one instrument. The orchestra, carefully guided by Dudamel, blasted away in shifting polyphonic passages that would occasionally dissolve into microtones like the music of György Ligeti, and reverted to high-pitched harmonics near the end. There are patches of drones that are trademarks of contemporary Icelandic music (as heard at the above-mentioned festival), but they do not dominate this piece as they do others.

It was apparent from the opening notes that this 19 1/2-minute concerto – with its rambling, diffuse (upon a first hearing), single-movement structure, and challenging dissonances – was not what you would call normal, safe Hollywood Bowl fare. Nevertheless, there were passages like the second cadenza where Kuusisto could produce wild, rapid tremelos that got a rise out of a sizable Bowl crowd that had come mainly for their man, Gustavo, and The Planets. Give credit to the 36-year-old Venezuelan who continues to spend goodwill capital that he has accumulated in this city on adventurous projects – and extra credit for doing so in the populist Bowl.

Music under the night sky: all you need for the contemplation of infinity. (LA Phil)

I doubt if it was a coincidence that the performance of The Planets took place only one day after the solar eclipse that captured the rapt attention of the country; the date and path of the eclipse had been precisely plotted for decades. But if you were wondering whether there was any possibility of Dudamel’s political struggles turning up in The Planets, look no further than “Mars,” which was driven at a furious, pushed pace with good strong rhythm and some real rage a bit beyond the usual parameters of this depiction of “the bringer of wars.” “Venus” sang out with some warmth, “Mercury” and “Jupiter” were fast and full of vivacity, and “Uranus” was pushed nearly as hard as “Mars.”

“Saturn” lacked the qualities of timelessness and dread, but “Neptune” drifted just fine at Dudamel’s relaxed pace. The disembodied voices of women from the Los Angeles Master Chorale emerged from side speakers mounted on towers flanking the lower box seats; they were too loud at first, but Dudamel and the sound engineers managed to create a convincing fade out at the end, just as Holst wanted.

At previous performances of The Planets at the Bowl over the decades, I’ve witnessed extracurricular additions like a laser show or spectacular film images of the planets from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This time, there was nothing but the music under the night sky – which, though light-polluted, provided all you need for the contemplation of infinity.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Date posted: August 24, 2017

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