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Conductor Gustavo Dudamel brings high-intensity Corigliano to Davies

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Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the first of two Great Performers Series concerts conducted by their Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. The high point of the evening filled the first half of the program with a performance of John Corigliano’s first symphony. This piece was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony under its Meet the Composer Orchestra Residences Program in honor of the ensemble’s centennial celebration in 1991. The music itself was composed between 1988 and 1989 and given its first performance in Chicago on March 15, 1990 with Daniel Barenboim conducting.

Corigliano conceived of the symphony as a highly personal reaction to the AIDS crisis in memory of the many personal friends he had lost to the disease. He wrote:

My Symphony No. 1 was about world-scale tragedy and, I felt, needed a comparably epic form.

With a duration of 40 minutes, the work is not quite on the epic scale of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or even that of a symphony by Gustav Mahler. Nevertheless, through the use of a massive instrumental ensemble with one of the largest percussion sections on record, the composition is certainly impressive, if not awe-inspiring, in its stature.

Considering the occasion that prompted the commission, one cannot call this “celebratory” music. Also, while the piece is in four movements, it constitutes a significant departure from traditional symphonic architecture. Rather, the work almost amounts to a narrative that departs as much from the traditions of tone poems as it does from those of symphonies. The first movement is called “Apologue,” which is basically a compact moral tale in the manner of the fables told by Aesop. The movement also has a subtitle, “Of Rage and Remembrance,” which could easily be taken as the title of the entire symphony.

Each of the first three movements is dedicated to one of the close friends that Corigliano lost to AIDS, while the final movement is an Epilogue, which revisits the thematic material of the preceding movements. Remembrance thus permeates the entire composition. However, the rhetorical stance taken throughout the symphony suggests that Corigliano cannot remember these three individuals, or any other AIDS victims, without an overpowering sense of rage. The entire composition thus emerges as a massive primal scream in which the quiet moments of remembrance only provide a pause to build up the energy for the next outburst.

On the surface one might think this is little more than an orchestrated tantrum, but Corigliano is far too sophisticated a composer to be overcome by such a simplistic style. Rather, his exploration of those vast instrumental resources as a medium for the denotation of rage is almost clinical, arriving at emotional expression so intense as to engulf the listener in both body and spirit. Thus, when the Epilogue finally fades into softer dynamics, eventually evaporating into a single fading tone on a solo cello, one realizes that one has experienced catharsis on the scale of the classical Greek tragedies.

It goes without saying that pulling together an effective performance of this music demands focused attention and meticulous control. Dudamel clearly dedicated himself to providing a faithful account of Corigliano’s score; and his control of the Los Angeles Philharmonic resources (generously supplemented with extra players including four unnamed mandolinists) endowed this music with the intense emotionality that the composer had conceived. Indeed, it was gratifying to see Corigliano present for the occasion, taking bows with Dudamel and the ensemble. More than two decades have elapsed since the composer confronted his personal grief through this music, yet the intensity of his emotion continues to resonate when this symphony is performed.

The only difficulty was that all of that attentive preparation for the first half of the program seems to have detracted from the second half. This consisted only of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 symphony in E minor (the fifth). I should probably be up front in observing that I had serious misgivings about Dudamel’s approach to Tchaikovsky’s sixth (Opus 74 in B minor) when he brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic here in May of 2010, calling his interpretation a “cauldron of a performance” in which emotions kept boiling over the top.

In last night’s account of Opus 64, Dudamel seemed to be celebrating that fortissimo was his favorite dynamic level; and he could never get enough of it. There was therefore a stirring quality to each of Tchaikovsky’s climaxes when taken in isolation. Unfortunately, however, Tchaikovsky did not write them in isolation; and Dudamel did not seem to grasp that, in an overall landscape, not all peaks can be of the same height. He thus offered a journey through the four movements of this symphony fraught with intensity but with seemingly little thought as to why all of that intensity had been engaged or where it was all leading.

My own thought about this symphony is that the overall journey concerns the transformation of its two primary thematic elements from the minor mode (as they are stated in the first movement) to the major. I also take the grand pause at the end of measure 471 in the fourth movement as Tchaikovsky’s cuing us that we have finally arrived at the end of the journey (even if the coda has almost 100 more measures to cover). The mournful clarinet solo that first introduced the symphony emerges from that grand pause as a triumphant march, giving the listener a gratifying sense that this trip had been worth taking. Under Dudamel’s baton, however, that march emerged as anticlimactic, perhaps because he realized that he had expended so much energy that he needed to hold back to make it through those last 100 measures. The result was particularly disconcerting after his intense approach to Corigliano had been so effective.

Nevertheless, one can believe that Tchaikovsky composed that coda to trigger spontaneous outbursts of “Bravo!” from the audience; and that is exactly what Dudamel got. Indeed, it was one of those nights when shouting “Bravo!” louder than everyone else seemed to be more of a priority than listening to the music. That enthusiasm was rewarded with an encore in the form of the polonaise the begins the third act of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, a delightfully festive moment during which nothing of import to the overall narrative happens. This was a delightful way to conclude the evening; but it also served as a reminder that, particularly during the second half of the program, any sense of significance was in short supply.

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