Barefoot Violinist, Off-Beat Premiere On Quirky Concert

Patricia Kopatchinskaja performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in her preferred manner, barefoot, with conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the LA Phil. The concert also offered ‘SPIRA,’ a shimmering new work by Unsuk Chin. (Marco Borggreve)
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES – The Moldovan-born violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a recent music director of the Ojai Music Festival, brought a taste of that venturesome organization’s quirkiness to Walt Disney Concert Hall on the morning of April 5, and not everyone welcomed it.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s guest conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, proved a willing and expert collaborator in Kopatchinskaja’s problematic, but sometimes amusing and inspired, dismantling of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto. The Lithuanian conductor, 32, is a former associate conductor of the Philharmonic and current music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Gražinytė-Tyla, seen here leading the City of Birmingham Orchestra, is a former associate conductor of the LA Phil.

Last June, Kopatchinskaja thumbed her nose at tradition in Ojai, basically dancing on the graves of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. At Disney Hall, she seemed to alternately engage and befuddle the audience. (I went back for the concert the next night, which was also full.)

Kopatchinskaja dragged tempos and willfully manipulated dynamics. She took the opening melody very slowly and quietly, an unexpectedly reticent introduction to one of the most lyrical, sturdily virtuosic, heart-on-the-sleeve scores in the repertoire. Her rendition often felt like someone speaking so quietly you had to lean in to hear. It was not Tchaikovsky as usual.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s Debussy: exquisite play of light. (Frans Jansen)

In several ways, Gražinytė-Tyla’s entire program, which included the premiere of Unsuk Chin’s SPIRA, a Concerto for Orchestra as its centerpiece, deconstructed — or at any rate questioned — virtuosity for its own sake.

Throughout each of the Tchaikovsky concerto’s three movements, Gražinytė-Tyla and Kopatchinskaja provoked us to stop and think about its predictable big moments and easy-listening melodies. Together, they took the “war” out of “warhorse.”

Even so, there were still excitingly unbridled moments. A true avant-garde spirit, Kopatchinskaja brings something refreshingly child-like to the stage. Decidedly theatrical, she began the concert by slipping out of her ruby red slippers and performing in bare feet. She also has ideas, and what might have been willfully puerile and mannered in another violinist’s reading conveyed personal conviction here.

At the April 5 matinee performance, the Philharmonic’s strings seemed to resist her interpretation. Or was that a planned part of this account’s theatricality? They were more on board with her sometimes inspired shenanigans at the next performance. They endured long cadenzas in which Kopatchinskaja elicited high harmonics and near-microtonal playing, often skirting the edge of audibility.

Critic John Simon once suggested such whispering amounted to “inverse hamminess.” So be it. While Kopatchinskaja delivered the expected fireworks in the bravura conclusions of the first movement and finale, elsewhere her unpredictably larghissimo approach revealed itself as just another kind of virtuosity.

The violinist’s encore, Kurtág’s Hommage á Tchaikovsky, kept the audience off-balance. Wearing black gloves, Kopatchinskaja pounded on an upright piano for just over a minute, parodying the famous opening chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. There was laughter at the matinee, but the following night, confusion in the audience was more evident, as if a joke had been played on them.

Chin’s conceptual framework: the logarithmic spiral

After intermission, virtuosity of a more widely coloristic kind was displayed in Chin’s SPIRA, a Concerto for Orchestra. The score takes its title and conceptual framework from the logarithmic spiral curve, also called “growth spiral.” Think of a nautilus shell or sunflower head, where the size of a spiral increases with every successive curve while its shape remains unaltered.

In Chin’s fascinating SPIRA, sustained tones from antiphonally placed, bowed vibraphones created a shimmering effect. Chin calls it a “halo” in the program notes. The halo helped to sonically unify the work, which employs a full orchestra. Each of the Philharmonic’s sections, including an impressive battery of percussion, came together briefly in chamber-like combinations. The economy of Chin’s orchestration sounded Webernesque at times, with short instrumental effusions leading to sudden outbursts.

Unsuk Chin’s ‘SPIRA’ was a premiere. (Eric Richmond, ArenaPAL)

Gražinytė-Tyla and the Philharmonic kept SPIRA‘s textures and changing rhythmic patterns lucid. Especially at the second performance, the conductor made the most of Chin’s complex gradual shifts, from largely consonant, lulling harmonies to flurries of percussive release.

The South Korean composer, who won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for her classically structured 2001 Violin Concerto, studied with Ligeti in the 1980s. Like her late teacher, she packs a lot into her orchestrations and is meticulous about making sure the musical language fits her idea. SPIRA emerged as a piece of stunning compression. At just under 20-minutes, it felt larger and deeper.

After Chin took her bows, Gražinytė-Tyla and the Philharmonic gave Debussy’s La Mer a refined, precise account. I recently heard a robust, if somewhat less tidy, rendition from the conductor-less Kaleidoscope Chamber Ensemble in Santa Monica. With an orchestra more than twice the size of Kaleidoscope, Gražinytė-Tyla went for micro-managed detail instead of a broader arc. The result was a more thoughtful sea, slightly attenuating La Mer‘s potential awe and force.

However, Gražinytė-Tyla conjured plenty of atmosphere, including exquisite handling of the play of light on the rapidly shifting water and the stillness beneath its moving surface in the second movement, “Jeux de vagues.” If she didn’t quite convey the full tumult of “Dialogue du vent et de la mer,” her subtle integration of contrasts and evocative blending of colors made a persuasive case, as if another were needed, for La Mer as the greatest symphony ever composed by a Frenchman.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.