Some Latin Spice Where Dudamel, LA Phil Once Planned Genuine Fiesta

Gustavo Dudamel led the LA Philharmonic in a season-opening program that didn’t resemble the originally planned lineup. (Photo courtesy of the LA Philharmonic)

LOS ANGELES — We’re used to adventure from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the first program of its 2022-23 season promised a lot. It was to have been the first of three concerts in the orchestra’s recurring Pan-American Music Initiative series — a program of all-Latin American music, most of it little-known north of the border, that was right in the wheelhouse of music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel.

The program opened with John Adams’ ‘I Still Dance.’ (Deborah O’Grady)

Entitled “Dudamel Leads Songs of the Americas,” the originally announced program would have begun with “Sol que das vida a los trigos,” a short a cappella choral piece by Dudamel’s late mentor José Antonio Abreu. It also contained Gabriela Ortiz’s manic Yanga, Antonio Estévez’s Mata del anima sola, Modesta Bor’s Aqui te amo, and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ exuberant Chôros No.10. The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Tambuco Percussion Ensemble were also going to participate. It looked bold and tantalizing.

Yet by concert time at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 2, all of the above had been thrown out. Gone. Instead, we were presented with John Adams’ most recent orchestral piece I Still Dance, Mozart’s Concerto For Flute and Harp and Serenata notturna, and just a single Latin American work to close, Tres versiones sinfónicas by the Spanish-Cuban-Mexican-American composer Julián Orbón. A semi-Pan American Music Initiative at most.

What happened? When queried, a Philharmonic spokesperson cryptically wrote in an e-mail, “No cancellation of artists, just a decision to change the program.” If I may indulge in speculation, maybe the Phil chose to swap in a program that was less demanding for the musicians, who have to work especially hard in this orchestra since there is so much new music to learn. Also, the Mozart pieces would give a handful of the virtuosos in the ranks of the LA Phil some solo exposure — and possibly a boost to the box office at a time when concert attendance in general is down in the wake of the pandemic shutdown.

LA Phi harpist Emmanuel Ceysson. (LA Philharmonic)

In any case, Adams’ I Still Dance, though short, sounds like anything but an easy ride. Dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas and his husband Joshua Robison, the 2019 piece was written for MTT’s final season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and it moves and grooves in a state of constant energy, motion, complexity, and anxiety from its opening riot of arpeggios to its “soft landing” at the close.

Taking it a little faster than MTT did at the premiere, Dudamel got the piece to stomp, but the balances were peculiar, the textures muddled, the big taiko drum barely audible. Adams cheekily calls it “a Baroque toccata on steroids with a disco beat underneath” — although in this performance, the beat seemed more like that of an oompah band. Again, Adams was in the center of action in California, a work of his having opened the LA Phil season just three weeks after his newest piece, Antony and Cleopatra, kicked off San Francisco Opera’s centennial season Sep. 10.

On to Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto, where the duo of LA Phil harpist Emmanuel Ceysson and principal flutist Denis Bouriakov shone with élan, with Ceysson producing sensitive rubatos in the cadenzas. Afterwards, the pair launched into a graceful, at times lightning-paced Carmen mini-fantasy as an encore. In Serenata notturna, a string quartet from the Phil (two violins, viola, double bass) and timpanist Joseph Pereira congregated in a semi-circle around the podium as Dudamel found the impish spirit of the piece as he pushed it along. A chamber-sized band was used for both Mozart pieces, giving more than half of the orchestra a long breather post-Adams.

Orbón’s Tres versiones sinfónicas is a three-movement suite from 1953 that captures the best aspects of the intersection between Latin American music and Euro-American neo-classicism of those days. Orbón had studied with Copland at Tanglewood — the influence can be heard in the first movement — and the clattering of the mallets and insistent Afro-Cuban-influenced rhythm of the third movement results in an all-out jamboree that regrettably ends too soon. 

Julián Orbón

This brilliant showpiece should have been punched into the repertoire instantly, but recordings have been scarce. There’s a good one from Eduardo Mata and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (Dorian) that was recorded over a decade before Dudamel made the band famous. Certainly the LA Phil had never played it before. But with Dudamel generating the heat and rhythmic verve to the manner born, the Phil delivered it in convincingly tempestuous, exciting, if sometimes blaring, fashion.

There will be more to come from the Pan-American Music Initiative this month with a reprise of Gabriela Ortiz’s violin concerto Altar de cuerda (coupled with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1) Oct. 6-9, and, finally, a real all-Pan-American lineup of Ortiz’s Kauyumari, Arturo Márquez’s Fandango, and Copland’s Symphony No. 3 on Oct. 13-16. And I hope the Phil someday tries to reschedule Sunday’s original program.