Violin Concerto Brings Fiery Edge To LA Phil’s Pan-American Initiative

Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel is in charge of his ensemble’s Pan-American Music Initiative.

LOS ANGELES — One interesting, enterprising, unconventional idea after another has been pouring out of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this spring as if a long-shut flood channel had been opened. The dam in this case would be the pandemic shutdown, and many of these ideas indeed have been held back until it became relatively safe to come out and play.

A case in point: the LA Phil’s Pan-American Music Initiative, which was supposed to have gotten underway in 2020 but, except for a few things that dribbled out, had to wait until this May to get rolling. Now it has begun in the form of a five-year project spotlighting the music of the western hemisphere, featuring, according to the Phil, “at least 30” newly commissioned world premieres.

Three of the May programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall were designed to conform to a simple pattern, each containing one world-premiere work by a Latin American composer, one past masterwork from the Latin American repertoire, and one of the Big Three Stravinsky ballets in reverse chronological order – first The Rite of Spring, then Petrouchka, and on Sunday, May 15, The Firebird. (The fourth program will have two Latin American world premieres as a prelude to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.) Gustavo Dudamel, the Phil’s music and artistic director, is in charge of all of them.

But why Stravinsky? Several reasons, the most important being that Stravinsky basically opened classical music to the possibilities of strong, dominant rhythm, which was picked up and further developed by Latin American composers. Dudamel has shown that he can be an explosive Stravinsky advocate – and the combination of Dudamel’s starpower and Stravinsky’s most popular works would help the box office (indeed, Disney Hall looked more filled than it has been recently). Also, Stravinsky wouldn’t need much preparation time, for the Philharmonic knows these ballets backwards and forwards, tapping into a tradition that goes back to when Stravinsky was recording his music in Hollywood’s American Legion Hall during the 1960s. And of course, the local connection: Stravinsky lived and worked in the Hollywood Hills for some 28 years, longer than in any of his other residences over an 88-year lifespan.

Gabriela Ortiz’s violin concerto, Altar de cuerda (‘String Altar’), had its premiere.

Inevitably, perhaps, some Pan-American plans had to be pared back when performances resumed. A rare complete performance of Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia was originally scheduled to be performed in October 2020 with the Brazilian dance ensemble Grupo Corpo. But when Estancia finally emerged in all its fiery, nocturnal glory on May 8, the dancers were nowhere to be seen – just the orchestra. Which proved to be enough, actually.

Things didn’t exactly go as planned on May 15 either. The concert was supposed to have started with another welcome rarity, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ early ballet Uirapuru, which the LA Phil had never played before. Yet by concert time, the piece had been dropped without explanation. That left the world premiere of the Gabriela Ortiz violin concerto Altar de cuerda (“String Altar”), as the only Latin American representative of the afternoon – an ample one, it turned out, running about 31 minutes in length. Perhaps priorities for rehearsal time for the new work did Villa-Lobos in?

In any case, the Phil did not need a Pan-American Music Initiative to include Ortiz, for the orchestra has had a long-standing relationship with this Mexican composer that has resulted in five previous commissions over two decades – Altar de piedra, Téenek, Pico-Bite-Beat, Yanga, and Kauyumari, with the percolating Yanga scoring a particularly big hit. Itself the seventh in a string of “Altar” pieces for various combinations of instruments and even tape, the new concerto is surprisingly (for Ortiz) conventional in structure – the usual three-movement, fast-slow-fast setup, with frequent opportunities for violin virtuosos to strut their stuff.

Andalusian violinist María Dueñas was soloist in Ortiz’s violin concerto.

Architecture inspired the titles of the individual movements — that of imported American influences in Mexican buildings and vice-versa (“Morisco chilango”), open-air Mexican chapels (“Canto abierto”), and mixtures of Mayan and art deco designs (“Maya déco”). The music doesn’t reflect architecture to me so much as it does the idea behind it — that of cultural appropriation, which in this case may mean borrowing European influences more overtly than in other pieces of hers. There are outbreaks of mysterious Romantic-period atmosphere in the opening movement, a dark sheen of strings and the drone of tuned crystal glasses in the second, and a jagged scherzo-finale with a slam-bang ending. One thing that differs from a lot of Ortiz’s past scores is that the percussion section no longer drives the music; it just sprinkles color and accents upon it. I kind of miss that drive here.

What most listeners will take away from this piece — judging from comments overheard at intermission — is the performance of the Andalusian violinist (and the work’s dedicatee) María Dueñas, who is all of 18 and already an extraordinary player. She fearlessly cut loose with a bright, steely tone from a very fine instrument, easily soaring up high over the drones of the slow movement, showing temperament, repose, and thoughtfulness in the cadenzas. She’s a big talent, and had no problem countering the firepower of Dudamel and the Philharmonic.

Both conductor and orchestra were definitely at the top of their game in full, opulent, unified force for the complete Firebird, which has supplanted the 1919 Suite as the usual go-to version here in recent decades. Familiarity has not bred a touch of routine — as seemed to be the case in The Rite of Spring performance the previous Sunday — for the dances had a strong lilt, the Scherzo floated, the climaxes roared and swirled with huge washes of 1910-vintage color, the Berceuse was lovely, and Dudamel patiently guided the transition into a Finale played LOUD. Dudamel likes to pump up the volume, particularly in the amplified Hollywood Bowl, and he has been criticized by out-of-town reviewers for this. Yet I didn’t mind the high decibel count as a cap to a performance like this, one that deserved to end in a blaze of glory.