After a week of the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrating its 10th anniversary, Walt Disney Concert Hall is, at last, Walt Disney Concert Hall once again.
That is to say that the orchestra's season opening program Thursday night conducted by Gustavo Dudamel was simply orchestra, music and unadorned concert hall. The premiere of a gripping new work by Peter Lieberson and a sensational performance of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yefim Bronfman as the irrepressible soloist were just that, no more and no less.
That is not to say, however, that the past week's celebrations were not exceptional. For a free concert in Disney on Sunday afternoon, Dudamel led the combined L.A. Phil and YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) in a stirring performance of the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony that may have set a record for the number of goose bumps raised at one time in Disney Hall.
Monday night's posh gala celebration began with John Cage's "4'33"," a marvelously daring invitation to the audience to silently enter into the Disney ambience.
But on both occasions the hall was curiously compromised. At the matinee, windows, which afford the space with natural light, were blocked and dowdy acoustic curtains added to accommodate a pop ensemble on the program, thus diminishing the design and acoustic properties of this great space. Monday, three large screens suspended overhead for video enhancement also distracted from the architectural wonder of the hall.
Well, the wonder was back big time for Lieberson's "Shing Kham," which opened the Thursday program. This continues a remarkable tradition that Dudamel has instituted of opening each season with a premiere (he's done that four out of five years, and if he missed 2010, he made up for it with two premieres the first week of his first season in 2009). Moreover, "Shing Kham" is special.
This percussion concerto had originally been commissioned by the L.A. Phil for part of Dudamel's 2011 "Brahms Unbound" festival. But Lieberson — whose most popular piece, "Neruda Songs," was a 2005 L.A. Phil commission — died before completing the new concerto, but he left about eight minutes of sketches ready for orchestration, which British composer Oliver Knussen has furnished.
Devoted to Tibetan Buddhism, Lieberson often colorfully centered his pieces dramatically or spiritually around Buddhist legends and conceits.
The title of "Shing Kham" translates as "pure land," but Lieberson's widow, Rinchen Lhamo, says in the program note that she doesn't think the title was meant to represent a farewell, a moving on to a pure next realm.
The piece, she feels, is an appreciation of the here and now.
The "pure realm" Thursday was the unadorned Disney and the immediacy of the iridescent, living sound of a large, radiantly colorful orchestra.
Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro, who had worked closely with Lieberson, arranged himself in an island of drums, tom toms, cymbals and marimba at the front of the orchestra. At the rear, there were more percussionists and many more instruments, which served to enticingly tickle the ear into attention.
The score begins with the instruction to the conductor that its character should be "mercurial and feisty, with energy." It's the best description I can think of for the flickering motifs that follow. Knussen, who has conducted and recorded Lieberson's music, is perhaps more pointillist in his use of instrumental color than was Lieberson. But the exquisite detailing Knussen supplies has the quality less of channeling the late composer than paying a personal tribute to him.
This is, thus, the best possible way to finish a piece, and Dudamel and the commanding Carneiro played it with a fine, brilliant finesse.
Following the posthumous premiere with Schubert's Fourth Symphony, which the composer called "Tragic," might have seemed a little heavy handed, particularly given that Dudamel chose to perform the symphony with a relatively large orchestra and, for early Classical-period Schubert, a bit of a heavy hand.
In fact, the contrast proved enlightening. The "Tragic" happens to be a 19-year-old composer's sentimental brooding on death, whereas "Shing Kham" is a dying 65-year-old composer's unsentimental fleeting illumination of being in the moment. Dudamel emphasized the beauty of Schubert's textures, his rhythmic insouciance and his lyrical lines — all the best aspects.
There were no small surprises in the Tchaikovsky — how could there be in what may be the most overplayed piano concert in the repertory? (Dudamel is on Tchaikovsky kick — he will conduct all the symphonies later in the season.)
Instead, there was a big surprise. Bronfman has probably played the piece hundreds of times. But his power and fabulous percussive clarity makes everything he touches sparkle and thrill.
Dudamel thought big. Sparks flew from keyboard to orchestra and back. It was a knockout.
10th Anniversary Celebration: Dudamel and Bronfman
Where: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.
Tickets: $62 - $200.
Contact: (323)-850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com.