The famous first bars of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto summon four fortissimo horns to urgently blare a four-note descending figure and then leap. The full Los Angeles Philharmonic punctuated that leap Thursday night about as adamantly as I can recall having ever heard it. An industrial strength timpani thump added emphasis.
Like a musical high five, the concerto's opening proclaimed Gustavo Dudamel's return to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a month, his first time back since his proud European and New York tour with the orchestra in March.
But it didn't proclaim for long. Or should I say it really proclaimed for Lang Lang? After a couple of repetitions of Tchaikovsky's tattoo and a heraldic cadence, the pianist entered by spectacularly shooting off fireworks of glinting arpeggios. His thunderous octaves shot out brilliant sonic shards. The first percussive chords boomed about adamantly as I can recall having ever heard them.
It now became clear that Dudamel had to begin big if the L.A. Phil hoped to hold its own against a stellar Chinese pianist who makes his own rules.
What a performance this was. I can tell you what happened, but not why it happened. Lang reinvented Tchaikovsky. Dudamel, who will lead a Tchaikovsky festival next season, happily gave the pianist the rope he needed. Whether Lang hung himself is a matter of opinion. An open mind was a good idea.
By now a goodly portion of the world with access to any form of media and advertising has an inkling of Lang's extraordinary technique and his gift for showmanship. He's been called a clown by serious pianists. On the occasions when he takes himself seriously he deserves to be called a great pianist. But you never know what to expect.
On Thursday night Lang approached Tchaikovsky's concerto as a jazz musician might a session. He had his part so well mastered that it had become second nature — that already being a phenomenal accomplishment. So he messed around, giving the impression at least that he was trying out new ideas on the spot.
Accenting notes not meant to be accented, he created a new rhythmic character, just as a jazz player does. Classical music tradition doesn't allow him to go so far as to add his own harmonies, so he voiced chords to point out dissonances not normally noticed. He mooned over lyrical passages, lost in the stars.
He was lost in himself too, when he began to conduct once or twice, as though he were Ellington and the L.A. Phil was his band. And Dudamel let him.
Funny things happened. Sometimes the orchestra sounded thrown by all this fresh commotion. The winds brought out dissonances of their own, intentionally or not. Solo lines in the ensemble occasionally had an arresting improvisatory quality. This was not a tidy performance and occasionally went over the top. But the interpretation was alive to the moment and never dull.
For the second half, Dudamel led Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony. A half century ago, it had seemed that a Nielsen revival, spearheaded by Leonard Bernstein, would make the Danish composer's six symphonies standard repertory. That never happened.
Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen championed Nielsen in Los Angeles to little avail and until Thursday, the L.A. Phil hadn't played a Nielsen symphony in well over a decade. Now it is Dudamel's turn. He became a Nielsen enthusiast while serving as music director of Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony, where the composer himself had conducted.
Written between 1914 and 1916, the Fourth, which Nielsen named "The Inextinguishable," is a testament to survival at a time when the world was at war. The score begins in a furious rush and ends with the white-knuckle antiphonal onslaught of pairs of timpani on either side of the stage.
Although the 35-minute symphony's four movements are played without a break, it is a symphony of interruptions. Instrumental groups are constantly breaking in on each other, like warring factions. Only with the insistent timpani whipping dissenters into submission is unity achieved.
But the Fourth is not all battle cry. Harmonies are odd. The orchestral colors are as adventurous and intricate as the flavors of modern Danish cuisine. Melodies are as seductive as Danish lovers.
Unfortunately, the orchestra seemed to have an unusual off night. Dudamel went for a thickly clotted sound (his recording of the Fourth with Gothenburg is more focused). But the L.A. Phil produced power aplenty, and that was enough to ensure that — unlike the fires now raging in the Southland — that the symphony remain an "inextinguishable" force of nature.
Los Angeles Philharmonic with Lang Lang
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Sold out
Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com
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