Los Angeles Music Review: BRUCKNER’S SEVENTH; MOZART’S PIANO 23 (Michael Tilson Thomas, Khatia Buniatishvili and the Los Angeles Philharmonic)

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by Tony Frankel on December 15, 2017

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


While he existed in the Romantic Era, “Romantic” isn’t necessarily the word that springs to mind when I hear an Anton Bruckner Symphony (except perhaps his Fourth, actually titled Romantic). His giant mesmerizing symphonies, nine in total, are closer to religious experiences (a devout Catholic who never married, Bruckner dedicated his unfinished Ninth symphony “to the beloved God”). Some may find themselves hearing one giant Biblical journey, while others (myself included) sense it as a spiritual explosion, especially in the way it ebbs and flows, pulling you in ever closer to another dimension.

If you think I’m being dramatic, wait until you hear guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the LA Phil white-knuckling through the Austrian’s Seventh at Disney Hall until Sunday. This astounding highly-recommended fire-and-brimstone performance elucidates how much religious passion coursed through the Bruckner’s blood.

Some may attend this program expecting — as I was — Bruckner’s towering Ninth, which was originally scheduled and remains printed in the program. When Zubin Mehta recently bowed out due to a shoulder operation, MTT stepped in with the 65-minute Seventh, much more familiar to him as he led it last year with his home orchestra, the San Francisco, before touring with the towering work in Asia. (With some of the longest symphonies in the canon, it’s wholly justifiable that any Maestro would, upon replacing another, stick with accustomed Bruckner territory.) There were no signs of shoulder issues with MTT, who turns 73 on December 21: The tall, thin, über-expressive descendant of the famous Thomashefsky Yiddish-theater dynasty jumped, oscillated his torso, shook his fist to the heavens, and even used his baton like a baseball bat swinging at the resounding notes flying from the players.

The four-movement Symphony No. 7 in E major crosses the threshold of standard symphonies into terrifically transcendent terrain. The muted strength of the opening string tremolo appears to materialize out of stillness. The first movement – with remarkably steady timpani playing by the great Joseph Pereira — progressively reveals itself into the third’s expansive theme which, some scholars say, originated in a Bruckner dream. The entire affair is concurrently calm and spectral, worshipful and scary. It offers magnificent, amazing, enigmatic, and even fear-provoking facets of the sacred. This is why, under MTT and LA Phil’s staggering brass section — Norman Pearson (tuba) and Principals Thomas Hooten (trumpet), Andrew Bain (horn), and David Rejano Cantero (trumpet) — you can sense an intergalactic muscle in both the peace and power of the work, so much so that you may find yourself wishing to return this weekend. And don’t be surprised to find yourself looking up at the Hall’s giant organ to see who is playing, but it’s just Bruckner’s uncanny ability to turn the orchestra into a giant pipe organ (Bruckner’s instrument was just that).

A Mozart Piano Concerto is often a good pairing with the massiveness of Bruckner, as LA Phil did in 2015 when Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Ninth, and Richard Goode gave a triumphant performance on No. 27. Here’s hoping that Khatia Buniatishvili’s underwhelming treatment of the scheduled Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major was due to a lack of rehearsal, or change in conductor, and that her sound will improve over the weekend. She has been positively sublime in past performances (Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 comes to mind), but at Thursday’s opening her flourish came courtesy of a riveting physical performance, but the finished aural result proved lackluster.

Clad in a sleeveless, tight-stretch, crepe-textured, low-cut, crimson-red Mermaid Gown, the buxom Georgian was a sight to see — especially when her head would be intimately lowered as she caressed the keys gently, followed by flicking her arms back with a flourish like a majestic bird, or snapping her head back triumphantly after a tricky series of runs.

While it’s true that this is a cordial concerto, imbued with a smooth intimacy and almost relaxed style, that doesn’t mean the player can’t be on fire. Here, there was a lack of voicing – sometimes bordering on muddy – and the timing wasn’t crisp (the audience response was equally free of vitality, so there was no encore). Clearly, there’s expression and technique, and she triumphed with left-hand octave jumps and right-hand triplets, but for super-clean articulation on the runs, listen for Whitney Crockett’s bassoon and Denis Bouriakov’s flute.

To be fair, Tilson Thomas also seemed reserved for the Mozart, but there’s no denying the powerhouse performance that gave us a thoroughly impressive Bruckner.

photos courtesy of LA Phil
MTT photo by Art Streiber

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
ends on December 17, 2017
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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