LOS ANGELES — So far, so good. The Los Angeles Philharmonic managed to complete the fall portion of its regular 2021-22 season Dec. 5 without any COVID-created detours or postponements. Only the December holiday rituals and routines remain in Year Two of pandemic times.
Of course, reminders that we are still in the thick of things are ever-present, from the stations in the lobby that check everyone’s vaccination records and photo IDs to the indoor mask requirements and closing of the salad bar in the Walt Disney Concert Hall café. Fortunately, printed programs are back, albeit smaller than before after taking a digital-only sabbatical during the Hollywood Bowl season. And if you look across the street, the Grand Avenue Project, a massive, LEGO-like accumulation of unfinished tall buildings, now hovers over Disney Hall where a rickety parking structure stood before the pandemic started.
Meanwhile, the relentlessly progressive bent of LA Phil programming marches on, with a parallel track of inclusiveness. I suppose it is no coincidence that after Gustavo Dudamel completed the season-opening concerts and flew off to the Paris Opera for his first stretch as its music director, four of the next five regular subscription programs were led by women (it would have been five out of five had Nathalie Stutzmann not canceled). The last in the string was Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony, who has an extremely animated podium style that is not only fun to watch but also conveys a lot of musical information that the players audibly pick up on. She arrived with two pieces of new music in hand — both composed by women.
First, there was Primal Message from a Los Angeles-born composer-violist of Zimbabwean-Japanese heritage, Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama. Already, this piece — which she says was inspired by the idea of sending signals of our civilization to other civilizations in the universe — has made the rounds on YouTube in intimate versions for string quintet and a small string ensemble. But the arrangement played in Disney Hall was a blown-up, lush, thoroughly diatonic, almost cinematic fantasia for harp, percussion, and a full contingent of strings, complete with the smash of cymbals and the tinkle of the celesta. Zhang seemed to revel in the piece; she led it with urgency and brio. The audience voiced vociferous approval through their masks.
Julia Adolphe’s new violin concerto, Woven Loom, Silver Spindle, was supposed to have received its world premiere here back in May in the hands of Dudamel, but that performance fell victim to the COVID axe. Being an LA Phil commission certainly helped it get a second chance on the boards before the year was out.
This work also has a concept of sorts, using the solo violin part — played with gleaming, and yes, silvery tone by LA Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour — as a metaphor for a spindle and the orchestral part as the loom. The orchestra makes an imposing entrance deep in the bass end and continues grandly with percussion accents through the first movement, entering a more dissonant mode in the second movement and reverting to earlier form in the third. The violin weaves in and around this tapestry (as Adolphe calls it), eventually subsiding to a single solo thread at the work’s close. Though the note values change, the basic slow pace hardly budges through the 20-minute concerto, and I would describe the overall mood as quizzical, searching for a payoff that doesn’t quite materialize on a first hearing.
Zhang’s flexible-as-rubber, hyper-physical body language deserved a slam-bang apotheosis, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony certainly provided a vehicle that could take all of this energy and then some. The pace was lightning fast from the outset and stayed that way throughout, picking up additional steam in the finale, which went like a house afire. Not much jumping rhythm in all of this, oddly — just a relentless forward push that the galvanized, unified LA Phil seemed only too happy to ride. This was the violent revolutionary side of Beethoven that often gets lost when folks approach the monument too reverently.