Dudamel Previews U.S. Tour With Yuja Wang, Rach 3

Yuja Wang performs Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel.  (Mathew Imaging)
Yuja Wang plays Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel.
In March, they take their show on the road to San Francisco, Kansas City and New York. (Mathew Imaging)
By Richard S. Ginell

Walt Disney Concert Hall was packed on Dec. 19, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Six words will suffice – Gustavo Dudamel, Yuja Wang, Rach 3.

There were other attractions on this Los Angeles Philharmonic program as well: the world premiere of Blow bright by the 34-year-old Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason and what turned out to be a terrific performance of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. But the combination of Dudamel, Wang, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was the main draw, and there was plenty of promotional synergy to go with it. Deutsche Grammophon released a CD in October of the Rachmaninoff with Dudamel, Wang, and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, and the two high-flying stars will be performing the piece on the LA Phil’s North American tour in March.

Dudamel and Wang take bows at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Mathew Imaging)
Dudamel and Wang packed the house at Disney. (Mathew Imaging)

There was no doubt that Wang has the technical equipment for this apotheosis of showoff virtuoso concertos, but she didn’t flaunt it in our faces. As on the recording, she was in an exploratory mood: Her figurations were clearly and delicately etched with a feeling of fantasy, the big guns ready for action, yet without any sense of banging or bombast.

Though Wang still tends to drift at times, there is more control and less episodic fracturing of the line than she has shown in previous live appearances here. She opted for the shorter original cadenza in the first movement (following the lead of the composer when he performed it), and there she understood the value of suspense, lingering meaningfully on one final harmonic turn.

Dudamel conducted Rach 3 at his very first concert in Disney Hall in 2007 backing Yefim Bronfman – and this time, he and the Philharmonic were not as impetuously intent upon prodding the soloist, although the coda was revved up into a frenzy again.

Daníel Bjarnason (© Samantha West)
Bjarnason’s glistening ‘Blow bright’ got its first outing. (© S. West)

While the title of Bjarnason’s piece comes from the last line of the Philip Larkin poem Night-Music,  the composer says that his thoughts were more along the lines of seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Be that as it may, Blow bright sounds as if it was mainly tailor-made for the hi-def acoustical properties of Disney Hall – colorful, glistening, light-weighted textures concentrating on the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum. This glittering eleven-minute piece has a lot of instant surface appeal, and also an icy chill in some of the string and mallet percussion passages. It is certainly more active and interesting than some of the composer’s static soundscapes that have been posted on YouTube.

As for Petrouchka (1947 version), this was Dudamel’s first go at the work, and it brought out the best in him, as well as some of the piece’s best qualities that are too often tamed and refined to death. All of the bright, garish, playful, raw aspects of Petrouchka were up front and center, with bizarre noises from the brasses and comically timed bumps from the bassoon that got laughs from the audience for the first time in my experience. Most of all, this Petrouchka was about rhythm – driving, smashing, bouncy, delightfully Stravinskyan rhythm that easily overrode everything in its path.

Dudamel and the LA Phil will perform the Bjarnason and Rachmaninoff works in San Francisco’s Davies Hall on March 12; Kansas City’s Helzberg Hall on March 14; and New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall on March 17. Brahms’ Second Symphony is scheduled to round out the programs, but Dudamel and the Phil should be taking Petrouchka on tour instead. (For details of the entire tour, which includes some concerts without Wang, click here.)

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.