LA Philharmonic/Dudamel review – an Olympian effort from the transatlantic team

Visits to the UK by the leading American orchestras are more and more infrequent; as the European tours this year by the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra painfully underline, London is no longer an automatic stop on their European itineraries. In that context it was quite a coup for the Barbican to have brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the capital for a two-night residency, with their music director Gustavo Dudamel. Their second concert will be a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, with members of the Deaf West Theatre acting out the drama, but the first was a more straightforward orchestral programme, with a distinctly transatlantic flavour.

It began and ended with music by John Williams – his Olympic Fanfare and Theme, which he composed for the 1984 Games, held in Los Angeles, and the March from his score for Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was added as an encore. By design or not, both showcased the LA Phil’s outstanding brass, which seems the best and certainly the most assertive section of the orchestra.

But in Dvořák’s New World Symphony that assertiveness sometimes became too much of a good thing. Charitably one could say that an orchestra unfamiliar to the Barbican’s acoustics can easily push too hard and sound brash as a result, but the whole of Dudamel’s performance generally seemed more concerned with surface effect than with illuminating the work’s more poetic depths. The famous Largo seemed soporific (despite some very fine cor anglais playing), while the finale became a raucous race, with every climax more energetic and noisier than the last; it’s one way of ensuring a standing ovation, but not a particularly edifying one.

There had been plenty of energy too in the centrepiece of the concert, the UK premiere of Altar de Cuerda (Altar of String), a violin concerto by the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, commissioned by the orchestra three years ago. Ortiz has composed a series of “Altar” pieces, using the term symbolically for somewhere that throws “music into relief”. Certainly there is plenty of sharp-etched detail in this busy three-movement concerto, with febrile solo figuration in the outer movements, which was brilliantly projected by María Dueñas, for whom it was conceived, and a slow movement that floats a fragile violin line over glassy orchestral harmonies. It’s an effective, vivid showpiece, even if its musical ideas do not linger in the memory very long.

The Guardian

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