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Little satisfaction comes from the Labèques’ effort to ‘go pops’

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With one exception, the piano duo of sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque decided to play the entertainment card in the program they prepared for last night’s performance at Davies Symphony Hall; and the results came up short. That fortunate exception was a set of four movements for two pianos that Philip Glass composed in 2009, which happens to be the opening selection on the recent box set that the Labèques released under the title Minimalist Dream House. The program notes by Richard E. Rodde made it a point to observed that Glass himself “loathes” (Rodde’s word choice) the term “minimalism;” but they never took the trouble to say what Glass preferred, which is to describe his music as based on “repetitive structures.”

There certainly was little one could call “minimal” about last night’s performance. The two pianos on stage practically roared with bold sonorities, and most of that energy emerged from a wealth of decidedly imaginative approaches to syncopation. Yes, there was no doubting that the structures were, indeed, repetitive; but, in last night’s interpretation by the Labèque sisters, one was more aware of how those repetitions served as an axis that penetrated a gradually shifting context. Furthermore, each of the four movements had a distinctive rhetorical stance, staking out its own unique portion of the emotional spectrum. This was truly stirring music of substance, and it was a real pity that more of that substance was not in evidence last night.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the program was left to the work of Irwin Kostal. In a professional life that spanned over 30 years, Kostal established himself as the premier arranger and orchestrator for Broadway, Hollywood, and television. He was responsible for what the musicians actually played in the orchestra pit when West Side Story was on Broadway and in the studio when the film version was made. In the entertainment industry he was the quintessential craftsman.

Nevertheless, he was very much an industry worker. He knew how to create to satisfy specifications. Nothing on his Wikipedia page says anything about his ever having composed anything. Of course his work sometimes involved adding material to fill time or cutting out passages that may have distorted the composer’s intentions. That was how the business worked. No one was in it to get to Carnegie Hall or Covent Garden.

One could appreciate Kostal’s hand at work in the opening selection, an arrangement for two pianos of the three preludes that George Gershwin had composed for solo piano. The second of these preludes is a lazy blues that is one of Gershwin’s best-known pieces of strictly instrumental writing. Kostal seems to have liked it so much that he decided it deserved to go on at greater length. So he filled out the middle section by adding a couple of improvised variations on the theme, sounding vaguely jazzy without having any of the jazz spirit. From a “show biz” perspective, it meant that each of the Labèques could take a solo against the accompaniment of the other. This was a clever enough idea; but it came off as concocted artifice, leaving Gershwin lovers puzzled as to what in blazes was happening.

On a grander scale Kostal prepared an arrangement for two pianos and percussion of what was basically the original cast album of West Side Story. For this the Labèques were joined by Raphaël Séguinier at a drum set and Gonzalo Grau with bongos and conga drums. Given his background, Kostal clearly knew his source material (perhaps better than Leonard Bernstein himself). However, while there was no shortage of driving rhythms and plangent harmonies, there were no organic qualities to either the music or its performance, as if the process of arrangement had sucked out all of the life that had made this show so memorable back when it opened in 1957.

If the Labèques want to make it big in Vegas, they now have the material to do so (complete with a dancer for the encore performance of “America”); but last night’s program felt distressingly uncomfortable as a “Great Performers” offering.

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