The second of the two programs that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will play on its Asian tour, beginning next week in Hong Kong, has an obvious American theme. John Adams' "City Noir" is an ode to old Hollywood. In Dvorák's "New World" Symphony, a noted nationalist Czech composer gave late 19th century Americans a few hints about how an "American" symphony should sound — reference "Hiawatha" and Beethoven's Ninth, but don't skimp on spirituals.
Then there will be the context, which may startle the Chinese, Koreans or Japanese audiences who know conductor Gustavo Dudamel's approach to these two big symphonic works from recordings. The performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night came across as new enough, bold enough and exhilarating enough to startle even an Angeleno.
"City Noir" was commissioned for the 2009 opening night Disney gala of Dudamel's first season as L.A. Phil music director. A 28-year-old Venezuelan, he was just learning Los Angeles, American orchestra life, English and Adams, whose music he had never before conducted. It was a committed but turbulent performance, which can be revisited on DVD or iTunes, now recently made available in hi-def elsewhere.
This time, Dudamel brought a darker, jazzier, snazzier, grander and more aggressive urgency. He was exceptionally propulsive yet also entranced by Adams' changes of mood, indulging the Raymond Chandler-inspired score in its desire to slow down to let the sexy blond in the corner of the bar finish her cigarette or take off on a reckless car chase through the Hollywood Hills. Tim McAllister's saxophone solos were hot, cool and exact.
Thursday was Dudamel's first "New World" with the L.A. Phil. But compared with his exuberant 2007 Vatican performance on DVD, this revealed a more mature rapture, a wide-screen sense of grandeur as if Dvorák's New World was the West of the great John Ford Technicolor westerns. The Largo was very slow and as compellingly bluesy as Adams' slow movement. The Finale was not as optimistic as it had been in Rome eight years ago, but measured, ambiguous and packing power.
The L.A. Phil is not going to a naïve Asia. Tokyo has nine resident orchestras. The world's major ensembles and top conductors regularly pass through town. Esa-Pekka Salonen was there last week with his London orchestra, the Philharmonia. No place hears more orchestral music.
The L.A. Philharmonic sounded ready for combat Thursday. It owns the Adams (even if a great performance of "City Noir" by the St. Louis Symphony won a Grammy this year). The playing in the "New World" had moments that bore comparison with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.