In Wang’s Bartók, An Entrée In Need Of More Seasoning

Yuja Wang, seen here in a photo from her website, performed Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with Gustavo Dudamel
and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo: Ian Douglas)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – As is well known in Los Angeles and Caracas, Gustavo Dudamel often immerses his orchestras in cycles or even cycles within cycles. Having just finished a traversal of all of Schubert’s completed symphonies in May with the Los Angeles Philharmonic – with a parallel series of Mahler song cycles embedded within each concert – he immediately embarked upon another.

Gustavo Dudamel embarked on a Bartok piano concerto cycle.

This time, it was the three piano concertos of Béla Bartók that drew Dudamel’s interest, and to fill out the programs, he included stimulating pieces by two 20th-century figures whose outlooks grew more radical and youthful as they aged – Leoš Janáček and Igor Stravinsky. This was great programming, another trait of Dudamel that is not often given its due outside his home cities.

But I would wager that it wasn’t the programming that filled Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 26. Rather, it was the pairing of Dudamel with pianist (and fashion plate) Yuja Wang.

A Bartók piano concerto cycle doesn’t take that much time out of a listener’s life; all of them fit fairly snugly onto one CD or a single concert program. But the music covers a lot of ground, from the mid-point of the composer’s career all the way to the end. (He finished all but the last 17 bars of the Third Concerto just before he died.) The First Concerto starts at a point where Bartók was at the peak of his ferocity (1926), having recently discovered – and humbly having asked permission for the use of – Henry Cowell’s conception of tone clusters. The Second Concerto (1931) marks a slight toning-down, or perhaps increased integration, of the exuberant hostility on display in the First Concerto, while the Third Concerto (1945) finds a more relaxed Bartók at the close of his relatively “mellow” final period.

While they are not strangers to the concert hall separately, the Bartók concertos are rarely done as a cycle. One reason is their sheer technical difficulty for the soloist, the other perhaps caution on the part of presenters who think their audiences can’t comfortably handle more than one at a time, if that. Though she has performed Bartók concertos singly, this was the first time that Wang had attempted the whole series, spreading them out over three programs.

Yuja Wang: concert pianist as flamboyant fashion plate.

There should have been nothing for Wang to fear in Bartók’s First Concerto, given her fingers of steel, her stamina, and her fans’ willingness to go wherever she leads these days. Yet the first movement was an incoherent jumble; her playing seemed rather shy in the beginning (she was reading from the score), with balances favoring Dudamel’s orchestra throughout. It didn’t coalesce rhythmically; only in sporadic bursts did she and Dudamel generate any drive, and the notorious hammered clusters that are supposed to be louder than the orchestra were almost inaudible. The second movement went somewhat better, with the percussion team placed up front near the piano as if this were a concerto grosso, and Dudamel gave some accents real zip in the third movement. Overall, though, the performance needed more seasoning – a lot more seasoning – and a groan could be heard from some in the audience when it became clear that Wang was not going to provide an encore despite several curtain calls.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, his last major piece, was written in the Hollywood Hills in the summer of 1966 when the composer was 84. It is a serial work, but Stravinsky noted that listeners seemed to take to it more easily than his other late-period pieces, and he was right, for the echoes of previous works – Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Oedipus Rex, and, in the gleaming percussive coda, Les Noces – give us points of reference as well as a subconscious sense of farewell. Time has mellowed the piece further, and the Dudamel/LA Phil performance – sometimes soft-focused, occasionally exultant, never brutal – reflected the increased ease that today’s orchestral musicians have when playing late Stravinsky. The Los Angeles Master Chorale contributed its own refined textures and the asked-for rumble of mumbled commotion during the Libera me segment.

Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass (1926) was his last major choral work; like Requiem Canticles, it begins and ends with unorthodox, strictly instrumental movements. Unlike the Stravinsky, there is little that is spare or inward-looking about this explosive, life-affirming, often joyous, sometimes crazy mass written entirely in Janáček’s obsessively revolving, late-period manner. Janáček may have been 72 when he conceived it, but it pours forth like the Fountain of Youth.

Angela Meade was a vocal soloist in Janácek’s ‘Glagolitic Mass.’

Dudamel, the Phil, and the Master Chorale gave it a bright, optimistic treatment, and it helped to have the nearly optimum edgy timbres of a mostly Slavic vocal quartet – Czech tenor Ladislav Elgr, Slovakian bass-baritone Stefan Kocan, and Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, with American soprano Angela Meade as a compatible outlier – on hand (Kocan and Kolosova also sang in Requiem Canticles). The Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna, who was just appointed titular organist of the brand-new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, handled the big kick-out-the-jams organ solo with thick-textured wildness.

Wang returns soon to finish the Bartók cycle – and the LA Phil subscription season. She plays the Second Concerto June 2 and the Third Concerto June 3 and 4. Dudamel, for his part, will lead Stravinsky’s compact, aforementioned Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s galvanic Sinfonietta – which shares the language of the fanfares in the Glagolitic Mass – on both programs.

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.


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