Post image for Music Review: MIRGA LEADS TCHAIKOVSKY & DEBUSSY (LA Phil)

by Tony Frankel on April 10, 2019

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Here’s how it starts: Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja — born in Moldova, trained in Vienna — saunters onstage at Disney Hall as if she’s headed to the beach; she wears a comfy lived-in black outfit that says “flea market” more than “concert hall”; then, she slips off her ruby-red slippers to take on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto barefoot. She plays the intro feather-light, while the LA Phil is given a very even tempo by Conductor Mirga Gražinytė–Tyla (the Lithuanian pronunciation — and don’t forget to roll your r‘s — is MEER-gah Greh-zjeh-NEE-tay-TEE-lah).

It seems at first that Kopatchinskaja’s objective was to give each note equal weight, even the grace notes. But then she really took her time in the first cadenza, adding a pianissimo jocularity that was a perfect lead-in to the orchestra’s pastoral entrance. It appeared like she wasn’t taking this event seriously, yet it turned out to be pure originality. As the first movement wore on with shifts in tempi that I’ve never heard in this oft-heard concerto, the 42-year-old Bern resident (looking like a twenty-something) positively thrilled and enchanted with her unpredictability; a combination of looking forward and backward at the same time — honoring the Russian master while thrusting classical music into a modern setting. When I tell you the audience went wild after the opening movement last Friday morning, even standing up and cheering, it was clear that this unique interpretation was inspiring to those who have no doubt also heard the D Major, Op. 35, time and again.

Flutist Denis Bouriakov just keeps improving, standing out in the second movement’s leisurely tempo. His gorgeous interpretation was balanced by the mischievous Kopatchinskaja, who made me chuckle, dancing about as if she was playing at a children’s party; she even turned to Concertmaster Nathan Cole at one point so they could play counterpoint like an impetuous competition. Fascinatingly, it helped me to feel what it must be like to actually play the concerto, certainly the most rousing in the canon. It’s also the best leadership I’ve seen from Gražinytė-Tyla since she was LA Phil’s Associate Conductor in the 2016/17 season; while the soloist was allowed to follow her own muse, Gražinytė-Tyla heightened the plucks of the strings and the echoes of the woodwinds, speeding up the finale to a ferocious finish.

The encore was a jaw-dropping, head-shaking phenomenon. I’ve never seen a violinist walk off-stage only to have an upright piano wheeled in. The violinist put on black arm covers, and played the thunderous chords of György Kurtág’s Hommage à Tchaikovsky, which actually spoofs the Piano Concerto No. 1’s celebrated opening with clusters instead of D-flat chords. Patrons around me were positively mystified by the prank, but were even more bemused that there would be no violin encore.

Would that the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s SPIRA, A Concerto for Orchestra had as many surprises. In 20 minutes, the sonic atmospheric work sounded much like other ubiquitous modern grand experiments with rich orchestrations and remarkable textures, but what did it all add up to? I would re-title it, “The Aliens Have Landed.” The reason for naming it an “oratorio” is that Chin uses two vibraphones on either side of the stage behind the players, using the electrically powered resonators for sustaining the tone or creating a vibrato.

Here’s what we hear: changing meter; spidery, sinister strings; sci-fi-like vibrating woodwinds; piano smashes; wavering brass; electronic-like pulses from trombones; quick crescendos followed by rapid retreats; a ratchet; ominous falling glissandi on the strings and harp; thundering metal; sawing; echoing; plucking; shimmying; thrums; brushes; chord clusters; drum rolls; chiming; whinnying trumpets; and wood slaps — all with a confusing impetus stopping and starting, stopping and starting, stopping and starting. It wasn’t noisy, off-putting, or cacophonous like Isang Yun’s work can be, but the mysterious, otherworldly sounds didn’t engage me in any way. Even with Gražinytė-Tyla’s amazing ability to keep it all together — and with the best players in the land — the piece received golf claps, and only three patrons in the full house stood up. This is clearly not what the vast majority of your patrons want, my LA Phil Board and leaders.

Claude Debussy’s most focused and dazzling orchestral work, La Mer is one of the ultimate accomplishments in the repertoire. Infinitely inventive, it surpasses all classical custom and influence. After hearing the forgettable SPIRA, La Mer’s modernity sounded as fresh as when it was written about 115 years ago. “Three Symphonic Sketches” each have a name to suggest imagery: The first two movements — “From Dawn to Midday on the Sea” and “Play of Waves” — explore the many moods and changes both on the water and under the surface. Perhaps Gražinytė-Tyla thought we needed a bit of normalcy, so to speak, but she used slower tempi that, although lovely, didn’t add anything new to the game.

“Dialog of the Wind and the Sea,” surely the most thrilling of the three, is at once threatening and vital; we sense danger as the orchestra lurches and billows in abundant swaths of sound. Here’s where our valiant conductor took it home, allowing barely a moment of gripping calm before that terrific, concluding accumulation offering the sea in squally victory, stunning and full of rudimentary force – all aided by the strong basses (led by Chris Hanulik), percussion (led by Matthew Howard), and timpani (Joseph Pereira & David Riccobono).

Without a doubt, the night belonged to Kopatchinskaja. I loved this enfant terrible, and look forward to more surprises.

photos of Kopatchinskaja by Marco Borggreve and Julia Wesely

Mirga Leads Tchaikovsky & Debussy
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S Grand Ave.
ends on April 7, 2019
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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